Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me at 30: David Lynch’s underrated masterwork

<span>Photograph: Lynch-Frost/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Lynch-Frost/Rex/Shutterstock

“I’ve already gone places. I kind of like to stay where I am.” The great Harry Dean Stanton tearfully recites these words to FBI agents Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) in David Lynch’s 1992 masterwork Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Though this scene seemingly has nothing to do with Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), it’s a perfect summation of the film’s tragic protagonist. Someone attempting to find light in a nightmarish world. Unfairly lambasted by critics during its original release, Fire Walk with Me is a terrifying, tragic look into the last days of a young woman experiencing the worst kinds of abuse.

Serving as a prequel (and a semi-sequel) to the cult TV series, the film mainly focuses on the last week of Laura Palmer’s life, the teenage homecoming queen whose murder became the focal mystery of the show. In 1990, television audiences were constantly asking who killed Laura Palmer, but in Fire Walk with Me, Lynch tried to answer the question: who was Laura Palmer?

Related: Twin Peaks at 30: the weird and wonderful show that changed television

The director became notable for his depiction of evil mustering behind an idyllic facade within American society; beneath the Norman Rockwell exterior lies a Kafkaesque nightmare. Think the white picket fences contrasted with Dennis Hopper’s sociopathic Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. Or the hopeful Hollywood dream v its unattainability in Mulholland Drive.

The series also continued this line of thinking, with the boy scout-like FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) uncovering the secrets of the charming small town of Twin Peaks. Cooper saw the world with infectious optimism, even during the darkest moments of the series.

But Twin Peaks was really about Laura Palmer, the connective tissue that brought everyone and everything together and her presence is felt throughout the entire series. There’s maybe no better example of a protagonist in Lynch’s work that embodies every theme that he has explored. Externally, a girl who personified purity and kindness. Internally, someone battling addiction, abuse and an almost prophetic knowing of her violent fate. In many ways, Fire Walk with Me is about finding the light within a cruel, bleak world. In contrast to Cooper, she sees the world with complete pessimism. When her friend Donna (Moira Kelly) asks whether she would go faster or slower while falling through space, she replies “Faster and faster. And for a long time, you wouldn’t feel anything. And then you’d burst into fire. Forever ... And the angels wouldn’t help you. Because they’ve all gone away”.

At first, Lynch tricks the audience into expecting something more like the show. A prologue focusing on agents Desmond and Stanley investigating the grisly murder of Theresa Banks feels more tonally in line with the original series, with Isaak and Sutherland boasting a great rapport that almost feels like a buddy cop spinoff. It’s when a missing FBI agent (played by a decidedly terrifying David Bowie) shows up unexpectedly, that the film becomes a Francis Bacon-like nightmare. Lynch has always been a master at creating a sense of impending doom. Bowie’s preacher-like ramblings feel apocalyptic as if hell has burst through. It’s a perfect tonal setup for the claustrophobic fear that is about to grip Laura’s world.

As the film is mostly from her perspective, the show’s fantasy elements feel more ambiguous. Killer Bob (Frank Silva) feels less like a supernatural being and more of a personification of the evil that can exist in even the most loving of people.

But the film-maker’s vision would almost be completely tattered if it were not for an extremely powerful performance by Sheryl Lee. There is no other actor who could’ve played every note of Laura’s character more perfectly. One great example of this is when she talks with her drug dealer boyfriend Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) at school. At first, she starts a fight, acting combative to Bobby’s accusations of cheating. When realising this will get her nowhere, she becomes the flirty, angelic girl seen in her prom photo. It is not just one of the great performances in a Lynch film, but one of the greatest screen performances ever, most reminiscent of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. Like Falconetti, Lee has incredibly, expressive eyes that get to the heart of Laura’s pain and suffering.

Deserving of near equal mention is Ray Wise as Laura’s father Leland. Much like Lee, Wise balances the loving, sympathetic father versus the abusive control freak. A scene where Leland confronts Laura over dinner about washing her hands is one of the most upsetting, uncomfortably effective portrayals of parental maltreatment in all of cinema.

The cherry on top is Angelo Badalamenti’s hauntingly, provocative score. Mixing jazz, synth and even grungy rap, it creates a moody aura that fits perfectly into Lynch’s dreamy but hellish world. Perhaps the best use of music features the late Julee Cruise singing Questions in a World of Blue. Bathed in blue and white as Laura watches on tearfully, it feels like the only moment in the film where she feels completely understood.

As stories of abuse towards women have become more public, Fire Walk with Me feels unfortunately relevant. Dealing with themes of incest, abuse and addiction, it’s not an easy watch. But while Fire Walk with Me is certainly a tragedy, it feels like Lynch’s love letter to Laura Palmer as a character and to Sheryl Lee as an actor. The film works so well not because Laura is a victim, but because she feels like any teenager battling their internal struggles. Though the 2017 revival would expand on Laura’s fate, the last shot of her crying with happiness feels like a perfect footnote. As the Log Lady says to her, “when this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out”.