Rated R for strong violence, sex, and drug content, and for language.
Running time: 135 min.
Release date: August 28, 1992
This is the third David Lynch film I have reviewed for Retro Movie Nerd since the site's inception with Eraserhead and Dune being the other two. My reviews have not been favorable apparently. Common complaints include indecipherable plots and inaccessible surrealist imagery, but one thing Lynch films always tend to be: technically and stylistically impressive. In my humble opinion, Lynch's vision for his films far outweigh the story that unfolds on-screen. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is not going to be any different, unfortunately. There is some semblance of a story here, as this is a sort-of prequel to the television series Twin Peaks. However, it seems Lynch would rather smother that story with surrealism and odd characters that appear out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly as they arrived; not to mention, guide us through an overlong journey with a character that is neither sympathetic nor very well defined.
The film opens with the murder investigation of a teenage girl named Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) in the town of Deer Meadow, Washington. FBI agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Keifer Sutherland) are sent to lead the investigation by bureau chief Gordon Cole (played by Lynch himself). Cole being deaf, forcing him to speak loudly, brings some humor to the story early on. There is also an odd scene where Desmond is provided information in code via a strange dancing woman, you know, just in case you forgot you were watching a David Lynch film. The two feds meet with resistance from the local authorities, but eventually get to view the body and find a clue under the fingernail. At this point, the clues and Agent Desmond are forgotten about as the character disappears from the rest of the film. Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is sent to pick up the pieces and reaches a dead end. However, not before we get a cameo appearance from David Bowie as Agent Phillip Jefferies in a scene that really amps up the strangeness and does not lead to anything related to the plot. Before you know it, both MacLachlan and Bowie are gone from the story, and we're left looking at the time, seeing that there is still two more hours to go. The rest of the story picks up ONE YEAR LATER in the town of Twin Peaks, where we follow young high school student Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) in the days leading up to her death that will be the center of a plot of the first season of the television series. Laura has a cocaine addiction and is seeing two boys at the same time: the jock Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) and the brooding sensitive biker James (James Marshall). Laura's best friend is Donna, as played by Moira Kelly here. Other characters pop in and out of place, such as another male friend, Harold (Lenny von Dohlen), who she gives her diary to for safe-keeping....and then he disappears as well. Part of the issue with the story here is that Lynch tries to introduce quirky characters from the series that really have no part in the story being told here in the film. Laura is tormented by a spirit that she refers to as "Bob", who has been sneaking into her room for years. The story behind "Bob" is quite difficult to explain other than there is a whole other dimension to this time and place that is not given a lot of time on-screen. A dimension that includes a one-armed man and a dwarf that sounds like he may be speaking backward. All of this is given the subplot treatment, as the main story is following Laura down into her descent of depravity and wild behavior, which will ultimately lead to her death. There is a relationship between her father and "Bob" that is key to the story, but is not explained to any great depth by Lynch, perhaps hoping that Twin Peaks fans will "get it". Well, this movie is for them anyway, and no one else. Standing alone on its own, however, the plot is a convoluted mess with a main character that is completely unsympathetic, considering the story unfolding around her.
Lynch also co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Engels, and there is a lot of Lynch-ian dialogue peppered throughout the film. You know, the sort of things said by characters that inhabit a Lynch film. They make no sense taken at face value and add to the code that only Lynch and his ardent fans are able to decipher. As mentioned earlier, Lynch can be quite stylish when it comes to locations and settings. The Pacific Northwest is shot beautifully here, establishing a sort-of pastoral calm over the proceedings. The other-dimensional setting of the Lodge is another neat idea, in theory, although it could have been developed more within the plot itself. Working with his cinematographer, Ron Garcia, Lynch provides enough of a weird, dream-like atmosphere to make the viewer believe that something isn't right with this place, but it would also help if Lynch could provide some context for quite a few of the visuals on display.
The cast is an interesting backstory on its own. Kyle MacLachlan had originally bowed out of the project but then later changed his mind. His total on-screen time is probably not more than five minutes and the lack of his presence certainly hurts the film. Also missing was Lara Flynn Boyle as Donna, but a conflict in her filming schedule prevented her from returning. Moira Kelly holds her own but her character here is reduced to "Laura's best friend who might just be a tad obsessive". Sheryl Lee is the centerpiece of the film and her performance here can best be described as "all over the place." Perhaps it has to do more with the screenplay than anything else, but Lee is unable to give a sympathetic portrayal of Laura. The story gives us a creepy icky incest angle between herself and her father, played by Ray Wise, who may or may not be under the control of an evil spirit, but other than a few passing lines of dialogue, the story does not provide enough context for Laura's coping mechanisms. We never find out who the real Laura Palmer really is, and this is only partially blamed on Lee, with the rest being Lynch's screenplay. In a cast full of quirky and strange characters, the best performance was probably by James Marshall, who was able to get quite a bit of sympathy due to the way he was being treated by Laura.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me has a running time of 135 minutes, and with the confusing narrative peppered with interminable surreal visuals, this is a slog to get through. This could have been cut even more, or maybe Lynch could have just made it into a short mini-series, since there was reportedly even more left on the cutting room floor. If one has the patience to sit through this film, you are a die-hard David Lynch fan, or a die-hard Twin Peaks fan, or a masochist. If you were looking at this film while introducing yourself to the series, then don't be surprised if this turns you off completely.