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Within the last ten years or so, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me has undergone a substantial re-evaluation, and what was once greeted as one of David Lynch's worst features has since been reclaimed by many fans as one of his best. I am a little sorry to admit that I'm not at all one those fans. I'm grateful that it exists; without the things he figured out from making this film, I doubt we'd have gotten Mulholland Dr. and certainly not Lost Highway. And in its best moments, this is absolutely terrific stuff, with moments of all-encompassing horror to rank with anything made in the 1990s. But the sum is decidedly less than the parts, in this case.

Going into production very shortly after the Twin Peaks television series wrapped up, and completed in time to premiere at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival (to intensely hostile crowds and critics), Fire Walk with Me is a prequels in two parts. First, we go to the Pacific Northwest in the spring of 1988, where the FBI is called in to investigate a murder and kidnapping of teenage drifter Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) in the town of Deer Meadow, Washington. A year later, in the town of Twin Peaks, halfway across the state, high school senior Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is about to be murdered by the same man who killed Teresa, and we spend the last week of her life with her. We watch as she first discovers that the raving, demonic Bob (Frank Silva) who has been raping her on a regular basis since she was 12, is actually her father Leland (Ray Wise); we then watch as this information transforms into the sure and certain knowledge that her soul is soon to be devoured by Bob just as Leland's was, and that only death - perhaps death via a cocaine addiction and prostitution - will set her free from his grip.

Fun stuff, though my primary reservations with Fire Walk with Me aren't solely that it's suffocatingly unpleasant (which it is, and obviously intentionally so). Outside of the flagrantly experimental INLAND EMPIRE, all of the David Lynch projects that I treasure most (Eraserhead, Mulholland Dr., the Twin Peaks pilot and finale) get that way by virtue of sublimating their horror at the cruelty and wretchedness of daily life into a ghost-haunted world of psychologically abstract concerns registered as visual tone poems. And Fire Walk with Me is just so... literal. I get that complaining that the film is too straightforward is ridiculous, given how many surrealistic breakdowns take place over the course of its 134 minutes, but that's exactly my complaint regardless. It's the story of a young woman who was psychologically broken by being raped for six straight years by her father, ta-daa, the end. It makes us feel extravagantly bad about this, because it's extravagantly upsetting. One needn't be an aesthetic master on Lynch's level to generate this emotional response, and one needn't call in the universe of Twin Peaks, either.

Besides which, it's an exceedingly angry film, the only thing Lynch ever did that evokes that particular emotion. Angry primarily towards the people who watched Twin Peaks, as far as I can tell. The film's very first image is an axe being plunged into a television set, which is a rather obvious symbol as such things go ("this isn't the TV show", it says, right in the first shot), but the scene that I think really tells the tale comes as FBI Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) drive out to Deer Meadow. They've just witnessed a very odd display, with Chief Gordon Cole (Lynch) presenting a woman named Lil (Kimberly Ann Cole) dancing in an extraordinary and bizarre tableau. As Stanley professes confusion, Desmond blithely deconstructs every detail of her dance, expression, and clothing as a half-assed bit of symbolism, a fairly obvious (and later confirmed) joke at the expense of Twin Peaks fans poring over the series to extract meaning from its weirdest touches. I'm not much for symbol-hunting in my dramatic entertainment, and I don't think Twin Peaks benefits from it, but that still strikes me as a needlessly cruel thing to do to the most enthusiastic, engaged fanbase of your prematurely-cancelled television program.

The most angry thing, though, is the plot itself. I've previously argued that the extreme savagery of Episode 14 of the series, in which we see Leland/Bob murder Laura's identical cousin Maddy, was an expression of Lynch's frustration with fans who made the show a melodramatic fetish object. "You want to know what happened to the dead girl?" he seems to be asking. "This happened, and I hope you choke on it." I'll confess that I might not have come up with that reading if not for Fire Walk with Me, which is the same thing writ large. Put simply, Twin Peaks, the series, is about deriving entertainment from a dead girl. Fire Walk with Me is about confronting the fact that this dead girl used to be alive (which, of course, she never was, being a fictional construct, but the point remains the same). In principle, and often in practice, I think that's a great direction for a Twin Peaks prequel to go - after Dale Cooper, Laura Palmer is the most important character in the series, arguably, and allowing her to take center stage as an actual human being rather than a construct made up of other people's impressions is both a rich gesture of authorial generosity, and a profound emotional challenge to the viewer. But again, it feels mostly angry, and that anger manifests as an hour and 45 minutes of watching a troubled kid suffer and die horribly, without much payoff or nuance, just to make us feel drained and awful. It's a nihilistic battering-ram of a film, not much removed from straight-up misery porn, and while I would never dream of calling it Lynch's worst film (that's obviously Dune, and Wild at Heart is right down there), it's by a substantial margin the Lynch film I'm least inclined to watch.

Anyway, that's a whole lot of mostly unmitigated complaining about a film that does unquestionably have quite a lot of good things going for it. It's the artistic forerunner to Mulholland Dr., how could it not? And while the freedom from network standards and practices isn't entirely a good thing (lot of gratuitous nudity going on, including a sex scene between Laura and James (James Marshall) that we 100% didn't need to see), Lynch's ability to plumb greater depths of human depravity than the television series permitted is a thoroughly good thing. Like much of the show and virtually all of Lynch's subsequent work (The Straight Story invariably upsets every neat narrative one might wish to construct about the director), Fire Walk with Me is something of a perceptual horror movie, in which the terrible things that happen in the story are married to an acutely violent attack on the viewers eyes and ears. This isn't always as defiant in its formal and structural weirdness as in some of his other work (I couldn't in good faith that the movie is as wholly alien even as Episode 29 of the series), though it's still tremendously effective. The scene in the Canadian bar where Laura and her best friend Donna (Moira Kelly) go at the behest of a particularly sleazy Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz) is just about the perfect "Lynch if Lynch constrained himself to realism" scene, with bright red lighting flattening everything into a monochromatic hell, as loud, noisy music almost completely washes out the dialogue, while white lights, barely visible, flicker around. I do wish it hadn't been subtitled; that would have completed the scene's role as thoroughly off-putting sensory overload. In the best way.

Mostly, the film's stylistic excess is all directly motivated by Laura's own experiences. It is precisely at those moments in which she is at the most extreme psychological points of her very bad week that the film's general buzz of malicious feeling erupts into screaming pain and terror (this is maybe part of what I mean in calling the film too "literal"). This is certainly true of the breaks that happen when she's confronted with the human identity of Bob (just listen to the howling rage-terror of Angelo Badalementi's excellent, excellent score - at least some of the cues are credited to Lynch in the end credits, and I do not entirely know which are which), but there are subtler moments as well. There's a scene in which Laura negotiates with a couple of johns in the Roadhouse bar, with Julee Cruise's airy dream-pop adding a soft aural glow that dramatically contrasts with the bitter, wrathful way Lee delivers her dialogue, and particularly the line "So, you wanna fuck the homecoming queen". It might not be the showiest moment in the film, but it's jarring, powerful stuff.

Honestly, everything with Lee in it is powerful. The abyss of human suffering she pulls into the character, and the vicious, cruel, self-negating behavior she mixes in with the more expected sadness and vulnerability as a result of that suffering, is frequently very hard to watch. Even when it's not, the draining, shocking force of it is astonishing: there's a scene in which Leland berates Laura for failing to wash her hands, while his wife & her mother Sarah (Grace Zabriskie) angrily begs him to stop it. Between Wise's sweaty, high-browed stare, and Lee's look of miserable terror, and Zabriskie's sharp-edged voice, the whole thing is superbly distressing.

So, by all means, there are great parts in Fire Walk with Me. Phenomenal parts. I'm just really not sure that they end up doing anything besides pistol-whipping the viewer in the kidneys at unpredictable intervals. Take the opening half-hour, for example. Setting aside MacLachlan's palpable indifference to being in his scenes (and the shitty things the hair & makeup department did to his hair), this is outstanding material. There's some dust-dry mordant humor (the only humor to be found in the movie), in the bedgraggled, nasty-minded inhabitants of Deer Meadow. There's some of the film's best music and cinematography. There's the outstanding scene in which the long-lost Agent Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie) stumbles into the FBI's Philadelphia office, having apparently lost two years of his life to the Black Lodge, and reports on it in a fractured, incoherent way, with the film blurring into a close-up of TV static (a motif used throughout the film to represent the collision between the material and spirit worlds) as it shows footage of the various malevolent forces sitting in their dingy flophouse, and mixing Jeffries's dialogue with the Lodge spirits' conversation, so that both the audio and video are operating in multiple layers, but different multiple layers. It's a pitch-perfect evocation of the disconnect between that world and ours, one so disordered that it turns the film into a very nearly incomprehensible slurry of image and sound data, and it's by no small margin my favorite scene in the movie. And even granting that, I still feel like the film as a whole would be stronger if all of the Deer Meadow material was simply cut out entirely. It feels like tacked-on fan service (it was, apparently, the seed for a Fire Walk with Me sequel doomed to never materialise, though undoubtedly some of the ideas for that sequel ended up in the 2017 Twin Peaks: The Return) - well-made and entertaining fan service, but largely immaterial to the story of Laura Palmer, and ultimately distracting.

But, honestly, it's all well-made. The only out-and-out flaws here are all related to actors who don't have very much screentime: James Marshall and Eric Da Re are no better than they were in the series (Da Re is perhaps worse), and while Moira Kelly isn't doing anything particularly "bad", she's a terribly insufficient replacement for Lara Flynn Boyle. The question is, what does this well-made stuff do? For plenty of people, it obviously does a lot. For me, it just kind of wallows in the ugliness of humanity with nothing else to say but "isn't it evil how evil people do evil?" Most Lynch films ask similar questions, certainly, but generally they do so without being so direct and blunt about it. The bluntness is undoubtedly a strong part of why Fire Walk with Me has the incredible force it does, but I won't pretend that it makes me particularly admire the film, either as an extension of the series, or as a stand-alone piece of Lynch's oeuvre.