First, the good news: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is not as bad as I remembered. The bad news is that I remembered it as being one of the worst movies I have ever seen, so the bar was pretty low for watching it for the first time since seeing it in a theater more than 30 years ago. Buried amidst the surrealism, supernatural red herrings and pretentious weirdness is a coherent story that could have been a lot better stripped of those other aspects. Alas, the movie is loaded down with all of those other things and, while not as bad as I remembered is still pretty bad.
Twin Peaks was the last broadcast television show I regularly watched on commercial television. Years later, the show ran on Netflix and I attempted to watch it again. I had never seen all the episodes in the first place. Before streaming, missing an episode and missing the inevitable rerun meant it would be difficult to see it later. Anyway, the show did not age well. In the wake of far superior television shows that would come later, Twin Peaks seemed almost painfully cheesy and worse still, uninteresting. So, my memories of the show are pretty fuzzy today. That turned out to be a good thing while watching Fire Walk with Me. When I re-watched the movie, I was seeing it as if it were a stand-alone story. Yes, I had a vague memory of some of the characters and I knew that the show began with an investigation into the death of a girl named Laura Palmer, but beyond that I don’t really remember what happened on the show. The bulk of the movie is about what happened before the show, culminating in Laura’s murder.
I was somewhat surprised that there is little ambiguity in the movie about who killed Laura Palmer, which was the central mystery of at least the first season of the show. The killer was… her father, Leland Palmer. The main story of the movie is actually pretty straightforward– Laura is abused by her father, who is insanely obsessed with her. As a coping mechanism, Laura is self-destructive and descends into drug addiction, prostitution and involvement in the dark underbelly of her town. Both she and her father are deluded in their own ways– Laura doesn’t see her abuser as her father, but as a possibly supernatural entity she calls Bob. Her father, meanwhile, is in a state of denial about his own obsession and will interact with Laura as if nothing happened hours after abusive encounters.
To the extent that there is ambiguity, the movie kinda raises the question of what’s real and what isn’t. There’s enough in the context of the movie to see Bob, for instance, not as a coping mechanism but as an actual evil spirit that inhabits an unwitting Leland. But I don’t think we’re really supposed to think that. Leland’s wife, Laura’s mother, is presented as an enabler who is unwilling to confront what she must strongly suspect is happening. Rather than doing anything to stop her husband, she usually sits silently, smoking and clearly mulling over some unpleasant thoughts. The bizarre and seemingly supernatural elements of the movie– and there are many– are, I think, supposed to give us a sense of the word as Laura and Leland see it– twisted, chaotic and delusional.
OK, so the weirdness serves a purpose. Well, some of it does. But that’s not how it starts. The movie starts with a story-within a story about another FBI murder investigation. The murder victim in this case is another young woman, named Teresa Banks. The death of Teresa Banks turns out to be related to Laura Palmer’s case and amazingly, it makes sense later in the movie. But Banks is dead in this first part– nobody is delusional at this point. Nonetheless, the surrealism starts hot and heavy, and none other than director David Lynch appears as a character, an FBI official who assigns the case to two agents. Lynch’s character is, I suppose, meant to be the movie’s only comic relief. He only yells, and communicates the assignment by presenting to the agents a bizarre woman who gives a kind of pantomime that one of the agents decodes as the details of his assignment. This, and more-than-quirky episodes like it serves no purpose other than for David Lynch to say to the audience, “hey, this is gonna be a really weird movie. I mean it!” in fact, the whole FBI angle serves no purpose in the movie. Once the main story gets underway, there’s nothing more of the Banks investigation. Actually, once Lynch had no use left for the lead investigator, the character simply vanishes.
I understand that Lynch is trying to telegraph a sense of menacing chaos, but the surrealism seems like a gimmick that both detracts and distracts from what otherwise would be a fairly comprehendible story.
Good use of Bowie?
Did I mention that David Bowie is in this movie? No? That’s because he’s in it for about two minutes. He plays one of those unnecessary FBI agents who is, like Bob, possibly a delusion and possibly a spirit. He appears, spouts some gibberish (with a southern accent) and disappears in a sequence involving other possible spirits that inhabit a kind of dream world that recurs throughout the movie. It occurs to me that Bowie himself injected nonsense into some of his songs in order to establish a sense of chaos and disorientation, and that’s what he seems to be doing here in this movie. But it’s a cheap stunt. Unlike some of Bowie’s comedic cameos, where his mere appearance is meant as a funny surprise, this isn’t meant to be funny (at least I don’t think it’s meant to be funny). He’s in the movie too briefly to really be in it for his acting skills, so why, other than the ability to get Bowie, would David Lynch want Bowie in this tiny role? I can’t think of a good reason.
I vaguely remember Bowie’s participation in the movie being touted during its promotion, and being disappointed that he was in it so briefly.
We hear Bowie’s character say, “we live inside a dream,” before vanishing into the dream sequence. If this is more than a throwaway line— and it might just be a throwaway line— it can be read in one of two ways. The most obvious explanation is that Bowie’s character is telling the audience that those dream sequences are sequences that depict dreams. But if you accept the premise that this is a supernatural horror movie, the line could have a kind of postmodernist metaphysical suggestion that isn’t thoroughly thought out and thus not thoroughly explained. But again, I think the movie makes the most sense if the elements that seem not to be real are not real.
Anyway, it’s a lousy use of Bowie.
I was expecting this to be the worst movie Bowie appeared in, but it wasn’t. It’s a bad movie, however at some point in the middle I felt like I wanted to keep watching. I found the ending to be satisfying and was surprised that the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer and why was clearly explained in a way that tied together the non-nonsensical elements of the movie.
I understand that the movie got lousy reviews when it came out but has more recently been criticality reassessed as a misunderstood masterpiece. It isn’t a masterpiece, but I’ll give it a little more credit than I was expecting. So, I’m going to give it two Bowies.
👩🏻🎤🧑🎤👨🎤👩🏿🎤 Four Bowie movies reviewed thus far
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
The Hunger (1983)
👩🏻🎤🧑🎤👨🎤 Three Bowie movies
The Prestige (2006)
The Snowman (1982)
Shot! The Psycho-spiritual mantra of Rock (2017)
👩🏻🎤🧑🎤 Two Bowie movies
Into the Night (1985)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
👩🏻🎤 One Bowie movies
Just a Gigolo (1978)
Hooked to the Silver Screen is my series of commentaries about movies in which Bowie appeared. The name of the series comes from a line in the song, “Life on Mars.”