Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 15, 2016)
Buckle your seat belts - this may be an odd review. I have to admit that I decided to check out Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me for a somewhat unusual reason. When I viewed it in 2002, I did so simply because David Bowie appeared in the movie. As a huge fan of the man’s music, his presence made the film more appealing to me.
However, Bowie’s been in many flicks I never saw, so why’d I elect to screen Fire? Frankly, I’m not sure, especially because I never watched the show on which it was based.
I recall the fuss made over Twin Peaks when it aired in the early Nineties, but for reasons unknown, I didn’t ever bother to give it a look. Sure, I knew something about it; the series penetrated the culture too substantially for me to remain fully ignorant. Nonetheless, I remained a stranger to its potential charms.
That situation didn’t change over the decade between Fire’s cinematic debut and my viewing of the DVD. Before I watched Fire, all I knew was that it presented a “prequel” that told the tale of Laura Palmer before her death. From what I gleaned, that demise offered the main raison d’ętre for the series, as it revolved around the search for her killer.
Apparently the TV series eventually related the identity of that murderer, which makes Fire less of a mystery for those in the know. For those of us out of the loop, however, it functions better in that regard. I didn’t know squat about the world of Laura Palmer, so everything was new to me.
As noted, Fire follows the tale of Laura Palmer. Actually, it starts a year prior to her murder, as we see an FBI investigation of a different killing.
Someone offed Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) and agents Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) look into the slaying. They discover some unusual elements, most notably a missing and mysterious ring. As soon as Desmond locates the absent piece of jewelry, he vanishes.
At that point, the movie jumps forward to present the final days of Laura Palmer. Pretty and popular, we quickly see that the homecoming queen’s life isn’t as sweet as one might expect.
Laura toys with boyfriends like Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) and James Hurley (James Marshall) while she snorts cocaine and parties at a rough nightclub. Her father Leland (Ray Wise) displays very odd and controlling behavior around her, and she professes that a monstrous man named Killer Bob comes in through her window and molests her. Her best friend Donna (Moira Kelly) knows about some of Laura’s behavior, but the troubled girl tries to keep Donna from following in her footsteps.
As I’ve established, I knew little about the TV series. So how did Fire play as a stand-alone feature? Acceptably well, though I wouldn’t call it a total success.
Director David Lynch’s unique brand of oddness appears in full flower here, as the film offers a slew of apparently nonsensical images. Perhaps not coincidentally, the flick opens with a shot of a TV being destroyed, which seems to be Lynch’s commentary on the less-than-tactful way ABC dealt with the series. More chutzpah reigns as Lynch himself plays the first character we see, FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole.
With Lynch’s exaggerated and loud declamation of his lines, at the start it seems like Fire will become some sort of bizarro comedy. The semi-goofy interactions between Isaak and Sutherland contribute to this tone as well, and I think one of the scenes actually provides a blown take that Lynch used in the film; at the 21:45 mark, you’ll hear Sutherland repeat a line twice before Isaak responds. This sure looks like a goof that made the final cut nonetheless.
Whatever the case may be, the first act shows more of the odd and quirky dark humor for which Lynch is known. The examination of the corpse of Banks alters the tone somewhat, but the film resembles a warped black comedy for its first act.
That begins to change more strongly when we meet Laura. Some of her early scenes play as a parody of teen love, especially when she and James have an (intentionally?) awkward heart to heart chat. However, as we learn more about Laura’s depraved existence, the more overtly comic elements dissipate and the tone becomes darker.
The film also introduces more apparently nonsensical aspects. Despite my lack of background in regard to the series, I knew Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper was the focal point. He appears only briefly in Fire, and his segments are genuinely bizarre.
In fact, MacLachlan’s segments are so weird that I can’t explain them without potentially spoiling the film, so I’ll have to omit specifics. Suffice it to say that they become quite surreal at times and really open up some potential issues.
Note that those segments include Bowie’s brief participation in Fire. If you - like me - watch the film to see him, you’ll also be disappointed. He doesn’t do much as a freaky FBI agent with the worst Southern accent I’ve ever heard. His scenes make a little more sense by the end, but on their own, they don’t merit much comment.
Lynch populates Fire with much of the self-consciously bizarre imagery that showed up in other flicks. As I noted in my review of Blue Velvet, I think Lynch often goes for weirdness just for the sake of being unusual. The odd elements can appear gratuitous and forced to me.
This proves true at times during Fire, but by the end, a lot of the warped visuals and actions make more sense. Fire revolves around the sad existence of Laura, and though initially much of the weirdness seems random and disjointed, it becomes more comprehensible once we gain additional insight into her personality.
Buried beneath all of the strangeness, Fire really offers little more than a tale about an abused girl and how she reacts to that behavior. That said, Lynch creates a fairly vivid look at the mindset of such a person, which is why the bizarre elements make sense in the long run.
Well, some of them do, at least. The Cooper scenes and aspects that surround Banks’ ring create more questions than they answer, but a lot of the imagery distinctly illustrates the depths of Laura’s soul.
As one who never saw the TV show, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me becomes a weird experience. Actually, even if I had watched the series, it still would feel odd, but my lack of experience impacts this interpretation.
Whatever the case may be, I can’t say that I really like Fire, but I must admit it delivers a strangely powerful piece. Frankly, the first two-thirds or so can be rough-going at times, as they seemingly make little sense. However, the final act helps tie these segments together, and the film ends on a haunting and powerful note.
Honestly, I was ready to slam the flick until I got to the last half hour or so, and my negative assessment wouldn’t have been alone. Critics savaged it during its original run, and apparently the Frenchies at Cannes booed it viciously. On one hand, I understand some of the nastiness, as much of the movie seems incoherent.
Nonetheless, I must acknowledge that if you can hold out until the end, the journey seems worthwhile. As bored as I felt at times - and I occasionally really regretted my decision to review Fire Walk With Me - the film stayed with me and actually made me more curious about the whole world of Twin Peaks. The more I think about Fire, the more I like it.