This film has a very bad reputation. Indeed, there are fans who consider it to be the nadir of David Lynch’s career, although frankly I’d rather watch it than Wild at Heart or Dune, or even Inland Empire. In fact, in my opinion, Fire Walk With Me is nowhere near as bad as many claim, but this is sort of damning with faint praise. The fact remains that it’s not a masterpiece.
The premise of Fire Walk With Me — that Laura Palmer was a self-destructive teen thanks to being repeatedly raped since the age of twelve — is basically sound, but then once you start piggy-backing off the success of your own work you’re probably in safe territory. Unfortunately, Fire Walk With Me doesn’t play anything safe, even by Lynch’s standards, sledgehammering us with obtuse symbols and bizarrely uninspired visions, as if to atone for the competence and discipline displayed in the TV series. Frustratingly, the whole idea of Laura Palmer’s backstory has great promise; the revelations about her incest have solid potential, but are diluted by extraneous surrealism and a preliminary FBI investigation of a murder which took place a year ago in another town. Ironically, this 30-minute prologue is more reminiscent of the TV show than Laura’s story is, yet it’s by far the most tedious and inconsequential part of the film; the drama is dull; the two FBI agents (unlike Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper) laughably forgettable.
As for the more familiar characters — Bobby Briggs, James Hurley, and Leo & Shelley Johnson — they are introduced and disappear before we know it, for no other reason than to play preordained roles. The only individual fleshed out appropriately is Laura’s best friend Donna (the only returning character played by a different actor, as it turns out), aside, of course, from her monstrous father, played superbly by Ray Wise. Agent Cooper himself actually appears in the atrocious prologue; he shouldn’t have been in this prequel at all. The woeful cast barely supports a murky enterprise that feels stitched together by different editors working at cross-purposes.
Given all this criticism, why do I think that Fire Walk With Me is much better than its reputation? A few reasons. Most importantly, it is Lynch’s darkest and most emotionally hurting film (more so than even Blue Velvet), containing scenes in Laura’s bedroom so terrifying they make parts of The Shining look tame. The question of whether Leland is an innocent man possessed by an evil spirit, or a garden variety sexual molester (seen as diabolical through the perspective of a traumatized daughter), is never answered (the TV series makes pretty clear it’s the former), though the reality is suffocating on either option. I was frankly more disturbed by Leland/”Bob” than by villains in some of the most hard-hitting horror films. The ending nonetheless provides an authentically uplifting payoff, where after a repugnant life on earth — and her thoroughly degrading final hours — Laura gets her angel in heaven. It brought tears to my eyes. Lynch had the right idea in making this film a character piece, in contrast to the TV series’ focus on the dynamics of an entire town. It’s an intensely personal film, and a switch in tone that I can readily applaud in the context of a Twin Peaks prequel.
Second, the sound design is pretty impressive. A haunting score is served up as expected, and of course there is the ethereal Julie Cruise (obligatory in Lynch productions around this time). But my favorite bit plays at the Bang Bang Bar, when Laura and Donna are going wild with a couple of guys ten years their senior on the dance floor. Lynch opts for subtitles at this point to provide a rare realism, as we hear the girls’ shouting conversation over the deafening music exactly as they do — barely at all.
The final reason that Fire Walk With Me isn’t as bad as some claim is Sheryl Lee’s performance. For someone originally cast as “the dead girl” on the TV program involving little to no screen time, Lee turned out to be ferociously talented in playing a complex victim of child abuse, haunted and terrified one moment, ragingly self-destructive the next, yet capable of tender mercies, especially when protecting her best friend who tries following her into prostitution. Lee deserved a hell of a lot better than having to see this film booed at the Cannes festival. For all its serious problems, Fire Walk With Me isn’t a dud; I’m drawn back to it repeatedly. I just wish that Lynch had had the mojo to smooth it out into what could have been a gem.
Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5.
UPDATE: 5 stars is my revised judgment after revisiting. This film is a masterpiece when watched as a standalone, completely apart from the context of the TV series, which I didn’t do at first. See my rankings of David Lynch films.