Fittingly or otherwise, the film I left myself for the final Film 2018 session was David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the controversial sequel to the enigmatic TV series that wasted what seemed then to be the only opportunity to complete the story that had left Special Agent Dale Cooper trapped in the Black Lodge of the series, and instead set an evil doppelganger loose to take his place.
Instead, Lynch (without co-creator Mark Frost, with whom relations had become strained) chose to do a prequel, billed as the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life. In many ways, I still resent this decision, even now a third series has appeared: everyone was there and alive and young, and most of them were available, and this could have been a real ‘Twin Peaks’ film.
As it is, most of the cast played a part in this film, though for many their parts were limited, and for even more they were excluded to bring the film down to a mere 129 minutes. A handful of major players were unavailable due to scheduling conflicts with other projects (though Sherilyn Fenn later indicated that she had not wanted to be involved, after the vagaries of season 2). One of these was Lara Flynn Boyle, who had played Donna Hayward, Laura Palmer’s best friend: Donna’s part was integral to the story so she was recast, with Moira Kelly, a much less striking actress, taking the role.
The film, and its prospects, were distorted from the outset by Kyle MacLachlan’s fear of becoming typecast as Dale Cooper. Initially, he refused to consider the film, but ended up agreeing to a greatly diminished role, requiring the entire first half hour of the film to be rewritten, to the detriment of the film’s cohesion.
In the ansence of Coop, Lynch and his co-writer, Robert Engels, had to introduce Special Agent Chester ‘Chet’ Desmond to investigate the murder of drifter, waitress and prostitute Theresa Banks. Banks was the first killing, a year before Laura Palmer. Desmond was played, laconically but a bit stiffly, by singer Chris Isaak, already of ‘Wicked Game’ fame, and his sidekick, the awkward, bow-tied forensic expert, Sam Stanley, by a young Kiefer Sutherland.
Over insular opposition from local law enforcement, the Agents determine Banks was killed by multiple blows to the back of the skull and that a large green ring featuring a weird design that is familiar to those of us who watched the series, has been stolen from her finger. Stanley takes the body back to Portland, Desmond returns to the trailer park where Banks lives, finds her ring under a lit-up trailer, and is sucked into another dimension, populated by the mysterious characters who hang around the Black Lodge. He is never seen again.
Put like that, this lengthy opening sequence, which takes up the film’s first twenty-five minutes, seems like a straightforward setting in place of the Theresa Banks murder, not a million miles from a certain town in Washington State. If not for Kyle MacLachlan’s reluctance, it would have been Agent Cooper investigating, in which case this section would have seemed better integrated into the story, and I bet he wouldn’t have vanished inexplicably on finding the ring.
But then I haven’t mentioned any of the details, and the details always matter in a David Lynch film, and I haven’t mentioned any of the seriously loopy stuff that makes you wonder just what the hell is going on. And, in the case of the dancing woman in the red wig and dress, wearing a blue rose, whose dance is a ludicrously coded set of instructions to Agent Desmond (a briefing sheet would have worked even better but would not have been so self-consciously strange), we wouldn’t get an explanation of that until 2017.
And Lynch then prolongs the strangeness by switching to Philadelphia, FBI HQ, Gordon Cole (Lynch), Albert (Miguel Ferrer) and Coop. Coop’s being weird, checking the corridor security cam then dashing into the surveillance room to look at the feed of an empty corridor. He does this two or three times until, on the last occasion, he’s in the surveillance room, and he’s still on the security cam. Enter the long-missing Agent Philip Jeffries, played by David Bowie in a Hawaiian shirt and white linen suit, with a deep tan and a bouncy walk.
Jeffries is talking nonsense. He’s not talking about Judy. He’s aware of his colleagues but he isn’t on the same planet as them. Coop goes to check the security feed and Jeffries disappears. He was never there. But he was there.
As the late, great Spike put it, “It’s all rather confusing really”, and deliberately so. There’s a temptation to write off all the film up to this point, nearly thirty-five minutes in, as rubbish, and it certainly doesn’t seem to have any true, organic coonnection to the rest. For now comes the moment of comfort, of recognition and an instant relaxation for the audience, as we jump One Year Later and it’s the oh-so familar Welcome to Twin Peaks road sign and that instantly soothing twin note music by Angelo Badalamenti.
From this point onwards, the film is set in Twin Peaks, and it is Twin Peaks, and we are locked into watching the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life.
Fire Walk With Me is billed as starring Sheryl Lee as Laura and Ray Wise as Leland Palmer, her father. Wise has a lot of screen time but isn’t required to do much more than look quasi-satanical. If we didn’t already know that he is the one who kills Laura, after years of incestuous rape, starting when she was 12, we would finger him anyway for his off-kilter performance, his obvious obsession with hi daughter, his volatile mood-swings and the way he just looks.
But from here on in, the film belongs to Sheryl Lee. In the series, she only got to play Laura alive in flashbacks, short and usually sweet. Here she gets to play the living person and she is astounding. Laura Palmer, blonde, beautiful, intelligent, Homecoming Queen, volunteer Meals on Wheels helper. Laura Palmer, fucking her ‘official’ boyfriend, jock Bobby Briggs, her unofficial boyfriend, James Hurley, the agrophobic recluse, Harold Smith, big, fat Jaques Renault from the Bang Bang Bar, not to mention being pimped out by him. Laura Palmer, High School smoker, drinker, cocaine addict. Laura Palmer, with the scary, horrifying, greasy, stubbly, assailant, BOB, who climbs in through her bedroom window at night, who has been ‘having’ her since she was twelve.
Lee is all these people, in turn and at once, flickering between faces. Everything is ever so slightly OTT, but the intensity that she brings to every emotion grips you and drags you along, whilst simultaneously conveying to you that this beautiful young girl, with everything going for her, is already dead, inside.
Even if we did not know that we are leading up to the opening of Twin Peaks, the discovery of Laua Palmer’s body, wrapped in plastic, floating in the lake, we would know, simply by watching Sheryl Lee, that she is sliding towards an end that will be neither commonplace nor easeful. As everything locks into place around her, as the pieces move that send her along the course that finally leads to her father’s insane and murderous attack, we understand that we are not watching fate step in to shut down all avenues of escape. All of Laura’s last chances were lost long before we got to the Welcome to Twin Peaks road sign. It’s too late, it’s far too late. We are condemned to watch the inevitable.
And it is horrible. There’s violence and degradation, but it’s not there for its own sake. It’s just part of the road, and Lynch doesn’t thrust it in our face or dwell on it. Lee lives it, simultaneously numbed and with every nerve in her affected. The two most awful moments are both sexual: Laura is terrified in her own home by the presence of BOB in the daytime, runs, crying and fearful, for cover outside, then sees her father leave the house. For the first time, she realises that her abuse has come from her own father: the blackness, the despair, the nausea. We and she understand the sickness in Leland’s ‘ordinary’ behaviour to her, the confirmation of her utter solitude.
And later, very much later, just before he will batter hs own daughter to death, Leland brandishes at her the two pages torn from her secret diary, and screams at her, in his own anguish, “I thought you knew it was me!”
The last half of this film, as the end closes in on Laura and we see her in all her phases and moods, fills in all the details we learned, retrospectively, in season 1, unpicked and assembled by Dale Cooper. It twists us at every turn, the horror of inevitability, of being forced to watch – because we cannot turn our face away – the sight of death spreading from within and bringing itself down upon this beautiful girl.
There are so many more pieces to this puzzle. What Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me really needed was Twin Peaks: The Return. It is now no longer the falling off, the unwanted beginning instead of the desired end. But it is still the beginning, even as it’s the ending of Film 2018. I’ve enjoyed this year of Sunday morning films very much. I hope some of you who have read these commentaries have enjoyed them as well.