As 2017 gave way to 2018, some of the Diabolique staff came together to compile a year end list of their top five favorite films from 2017. Unlike last year, I didn’t participate in this or any critics list, primarily because I wasn’t sure how to explain that my top five is the following:
- Twin Peaks: The Return
- Twin Peaks: The Return
- Twin Peaks: The Return
- Twin Peaks: The Return
- Twin Peaks: The Return
On one hand, I was admittedly lax about catching up with new films last year because I was so busy with writing and researching other things (though I loved Personal Shopper and I’m sure I’ll love Lady Macbeth and Killing of a Sacred Deer when I watch them sometime soon), but regardless, I can’t imagine anything being on the same level as David Lynch’s long awaited return to Twin Peaks. There is no other television show quite like it and few cinematic events. I’m far from the only person to want to include it on a best films of the year list, and it does seem to straddle some nebulous realm between television and cinema.
Though it marks a resurgence for many of the characters of Twin Peaks, The Return is a different beast on many, many levels. It’s a detective story, an experimental film, and a supernatural tale steeped in the occult, but most of all, it’s about good, old fashioned American trauma. The festering horror lurking behind and beneath the white picket fences of suburban utopia, the unspeakable violence that lingers in the shadow of the American dream.
Thus, I present my five reasons for why Twin Peaks: The Return qualifies for the top five slots in a list of the best films of 2017. (I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a minimum, but there are some.)
- “Hellooooooooo!”: It’s full of whimsy.
For a story that is essentially about the aftermath of the repeated rape and then murder of a teenage girl—at the hands of her own father, while he was possessed by a malevolent spirit from an evil dimension that exists parallel to our own world—Twin Peaks: The Return is full of a surprising amount of whimsy, even hope. This is primarily represented in the delightful character of Dougie Jones (Kyle MacLachlan). As is uttered to the younger MacLachlan in Lynch’s adaptation of Dune, “the sleeper must awaken,” much of Twin Peaks: The Return is concerned with the awakening of Agent Cooper inside an identical doppelganger known as Dougie Jones. Gambler, deadbeat dad, lousy husband, and a number of other unsavory things when we first glimpse him, Jones undergoes a profound transformation that begins early in the season and goes on to affect a great number of people around him: his wife (Naomi Watts in a truly incredible performance), his boss and coworkers, two plucky Vegas gangsters (Jim Belushi and Robert Knepper who nearly steal a number of the later episodes), a random woman in a casino, and so on—leading many characters in his path towards redemption and even genuine happiness by the end of the season. Agent Cooper’s lovable quirkiness from season one of Twin Peaks is echoed here, but Dougie is a different being, perhaps the only character in any Lynch film to possess genuine innocence—speaking to MacLachlan’s tour de force triple role here, truly the performance(s) of his career.
- “Who is the dreamer?”: It’s a masterwork of surrealism and, even more impressively, was made for television.
It is incredible to me that Twin Peaks: The Return was made for television, shown to mainstream America, and apparently was successful enough to convince Showtime that they should work with Lynch again if the opportunity arises. I’ve heard a lot of nonsense about how people who like the original two seasons hate this one because it has too many non sequiturs, is too experimental, introduces plots and characters it never bothers to resolve (Red, though, come on—just give me that one, David Lynch), and so on. I don’t want to give away any of these sequences in spoilers, but we essentially go from outer space to the heart of an atomic bomb of the course of some episodes, and there is a hard science fiction edge to the show that was simply not present in the original Twin Peaks (or in Fire Walk With Me, which is basically film noir). Gordon Cole’s dream with Monica Bellucci is the key to this theme: who is the dreamer? Who is the protagonist of Twin Peaks: The Return? In Twin Peaks, it seemed to be a strange combination of Laura herself and Agent Cooper, but here that kind of narrative anchor slips away, leaving us with little stable ground to stand upon. Which, of course, is where the show’s tremendous sense of wonder and discovery emerges.
- “He leaned in to kiss me”: It’s a compelling and affecting portrayal of trauma and sexual violence.
Few things make me angrier than reactionary fans and critics dismissing the confrontational work of a particular director as misogynistic or gratuitous simply because there are challenging depictions of sex and violence on screen. Such is often the case with Lynch, whose work has misguidedly been described as misogynistic or exploitative over the years. Hogwash. I somewhat recently had the pleasure to write about the Twin Peaks universe when I reviewed Maura McHugh’s timely monograph on Fire Walk With Me, where I somewhat reluctantly admitted that as a survivor of abuse, I’ve always been in awe of Lynch and Sheryl Lee’s creation of Laura Palmer. As I wrote in that essay, Laura is the most affecting (and effective) portrait of abuse I’ve come across on screen. Lynch’s incredible films and numerous talents notwithstanding, if he can only be credited for one achievement, it should be that he created yet another crime-themed television series about the murder of a young woman, but flipped the script and made his show (and follow up film) about a victim, rather than focusing on literally anyone else in her sphere, as such films and television shows are wont to do (and more on this later).
Twin Peaks: The Return revisits this theme of the consequences of violence and the aftermath of a terrible trauma, but there is not just one victim here, there are many. This is a world populated by fighters and survivors (with Naomi Watts’ Janey-E high at the top of this list), even if they have become bitter and monstrous to survive (like Grace Zabriskie’s Sarah Palmer) or if the pain of their continued existence has shattered their comprehension of reality (as I think is the case with Audrey). In this world, trauma acts as a rupture, a very division in the self. This could be seen in Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me (primarily through Laura’s split nature), and is a cinematic and literary trope that can be found everywhere from German expressionism—with its many horror films about the trauma of WWI creating Jekyll and Hyde-like monsters—to Harry Potter, where deliberate murder is an act that literally rips apart the soul.
Many of Lunch’s more recent films, such as Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, are about divided natures and fractured identities, but Twin Peaks: The Return is most explicitly about such divisions. Cooper is effectively torn into three, but Laura Dern’s magnificent performance as Diane epitomizes this for me. Always an offscreen character in Twin Peaks, Diane appears here as broken and bitter, dependent on chain smoking, vodka, and meaningless sex. Like Laura, the act that transformed her was rape, but perhaps the pivotal moment of the series comes when she reveals to Gordon what happened to her. At a time when women have come forward in droves to confront their abusers, this moment (and Diane’s character in general) feels prescient, sensitive, and honest without being saccharine or melodramatic. Simply confessing the abuse changes everything, but it also changes nothing.
- “Things can happen! Something happened to me!”: This is the best horror movie of the decade and It Follows can go fuck itself.
Like Twin Peaks, The Return begins with a murder mystery: a couple is mysteriously and violently eviscerated by an invisible entity while having sex in a locked room, and later (in the same episode) the head of a female librarian is found on top of an unidentified male corpse. In a darkly humorous narrative turn, these crimes are resolved or not resolved in various ways, but this is a show about horror, about nightmares and monsters. There is a woman from another dimension with her eyes sewn shut. Evil Cooper and his cohorts leave a trail of bodies behind them, rivalling any serial killer thriller for sheer nastiness, and some of the show’s best side characters, including Red (Balthazar Getty, dreamy as ever but now a silver fox) and Richard (the blistering, scene-stealing Eamon Farren), among many more (shout out to snacker-in-chief Jennifer Jason Leigh and her right hand man, Tim Roth), are criminals or villains. Sarah Palmer becomes a literal monster—no spoilers though, I promise—and I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I found myself rooting for Evil Cooper for much of the season, making this an effective anti-hero tale for some of the episodes. And let’s not forget the infamous episode eight, “Gotta Light?,” which features the terrifying Woodsmen characters. This episode alone rivals something like Un chien andalou (1929) in terms of its effectiveness as a surrealist horror film.
- “What year is this?”: The finale is the most devastating thing I’ve seen in a long time and ever expect to see on network television.
It’s difficult to talk about the conclusion of Twin Peaks: The Return without giving away any spoilers, so I will limit myself to just a few. By now everyone and their mother has written or talked about the show, so this is more or less public knowledge. Cooper finally returns and teams up with Diane to track down Laura and somehow save her from her fate. Ultimately, Cooper and a woman he believes to be Laura return to the Palmer’s home, where nothing is quite as it seems. This bleak, absolutely crushing ending not only prevents Cooper from being Laura’s white knight, but is an appropriately somber note, closing out a series where we lost a number of beloved actors associated with Twin Peaks: David Bowie, Warren Frost, Miguel Ferrer, and the beloved Catherine Coulson.
The Cooper that has returned is not the Cooper we left just before his descent into the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks season two. He’s broken and disoriented, and his unshakable confidence in his own abilities, his own heroism, and in the power of justice, are proven to be worthless and empty. His fantasy of saving Laura is revealed to be a harmful delusion. He no longer belongs in this particular world, where happy endings are still possible (though alas, James Hurley survives), but heroes are obsolete. If Cooper is the hero of seasons one and two of Twin Peaks and Laura is (amazingly) the hero of Fire Walk With Me, there is no hero in The Return. Laura’s abuse cannot be undone through sheer willpower and the honest depiction of trauma in Twin Peaks as a whole has few cinematic equals. The majority of mainstream films and television shows about trauma are not about the victims/survivors, but are about their saviors; everything from Law & Order to Schindler’s List effectively casts victims into the corner to be alone with their shame, while the hero vanquishes (or at least attempts to vanquish) the perpetrator. Twin Peaks: The Return certainly presents an incredible, sometimes uplifting journey undergone by many characters in and connected to the town of Twin Peaks, but ends with the harrowing confrontation of the fact that while perpetrators can be named and punished, and there can be recovery and healing from trauma, you can never, ever really go home again.