The opening act of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is easily misread as cynical. Its first shot, a metal bat shattering a television screen, violently severs the world of Twin Peaks from the medium that originally housed it—one that, by the end of an initial 30-episode run, had curbed the vision of creators David Lynch and Mark Frost considerably. And the half-hour of material that follows is, pointedly, everything Twin Peaks isn’t. We’re in the company of two unfamiliar FBI agents, Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland), investigating the murder of an unfamiliar girl, Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley), in an unfamiliar town, Deer Meadow. The denizens of Deer Meadow are ornery and dismissive. Desmond and Stanley, though not lacking charm, are a far cry from the buoyantly charismatic Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), whose presence throughout is minimal.
Then, suddenly, she’s alive. Fire Walk with Me jumps to the eponymous Washington town, one year later, and there’s Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) walking to school. She clutches her books and beholds her surroundings with a wistful half-smile, as if pleasantly surprised by her own corporeality. Sunlight glints off her golden hair. For the first time she is not a corpse or a photograph or a memory or a dream. She is not upheld as some abstraction of female innocence via secondhand accounts of friends and lovers. She exists on her own terms, a character with a voice, and for the first time we comprehend the enormity of her struggles. The elation of seeing her alive is matched only by the dread in knowing she won’t be for long.
When Twin Peaks’ second season concluded in 1991 its defining mystery had long since been solved, little ambiguity remaining as to the finer points of Laura Palmer’s murder. But rather than follow the show’s primary unresolved thread—Dale Cooper’s imprisonment in the Black Lodge—Lynch’s investment in character over plot instead returned him to the scene of the crime, etching the final week of Laura’s life in vivid, disquieting detail. With the benefit of hindsight Fire Walk with Me is unmistakably the emotional nucleus of the entire Twin Peaks project, reconfiguring everything that preceded it and greatly influencing all that would follow. It’s a full-throated reminder that the series’ supernatural elements operate on a foundation of uniquely human violence, that this was always a story about the victim, not the killer. To quote Twin Peaks’ own Margaret “Log Lady” Lanterman (Catherine E. Coulson): “Laura is the one.”
There is little mystery here. After spending a season-and-a-half pursuing red herrings and navigating inscrutable dreamscapes, Cooper eventually arrived at the very straightforward realization that Laura Palmer was raped and murdered by her father—a truth infinitely more hideous than anything in the realm of the impossible. All that remains now is Laura herself. Few films are as interested in their subjects: Lynch wholly fixates on her point of view to fill out the contours of this character with desperate urgency. And Sheryl Lee’s exacting, triumphant performance responds to each situation with remarkable vitality. It is through her that Laura’s inner turmoil becomes amplified to a fever pitch and we access feelings deeper and knottier than fear—resentment, guilt, anger, sadness, callousness, hedonism all contained in Lee’s piercing stares and full-body tremors. She does not condescend to the character by limiting her emotional register, nor does Lynch indulge in contrived victimization. Both creator and performer viciously castigate the culture that allowed Laura’s tragedy to unfold, skewering those who refuse to look past the mystery and see the person.
In one of the few times Fire Walk with Me cuts from Laura, FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer) challenges Cooper’s apparent clairvoyance by asking him to describe the killer’s next victim. When Cooper responds that she’s “in high school, sexually active, using drugs, and crying out for help,” Albert tells him that he could be describing “half the high school girls in America.” If this point is raised sardonically, it gestures to a widespread moral failure that will continue metastasizing so long as it’s ignored or, worse, accepted as inevitable. Laura’s experience is not isolated, even within Twin Peaks. From the jump the series is replete with imperiled women, many victim to sexual assault or domestic violence whose opportunities for escape are limited to nonexistent. Fire Walk with Me’s rawness is all the more shocking for its suggestion that despair as all-consuming and apocalyptic as Laura’s has been, and continues to be, felt by others. Even after the facade has come crashing down and the rot is exposed, all anyone can do is look away.
The story goes that Fire Walk with Me was met with jeers during its Cannes premiere and subsequent press conference. Much of the icy criticism that followed singled out dark tone, bemoaning the shortage of eccentricity and soapiness that first endeared audiences to Twin Peaks. The myopia of these statements seems obvious enough now, but of everything in Lynch’s corpus Fire Walk with Me has walked perhaps the longest path to critical reappraisal. Its most clarifying evaluation would come from the director himself. In 2017’s Twin Peaks, having ruminated on Laura’s trauma for over two decades, Lynch ultimately concluded that it is utterly beyond comprehension, that any attempt to systematically piece it together would cause reality to buckle under its weight. This thesis could not resonate without the searing honesty of Fire Walk with Me and Laura could not exist as anything but a ghost. And without Laura Palmer there is no Twin Peaks. Not in any of the ways that matter.