Trigger Warning: this article features description of sexual assault.
The townsfolk of Twin Peaks may have been complicit in the death of Laura Palmer, but the critics pissed on her grave.
On May 16th, 1992, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was infamously booed at the Cannes Film Festival. It's hard to believe that a once-critical darling IP had become cannon fodder for the festival circuit. What the critics didn't understand was that they were trashing a masterpiece.
When the series Twin Peaks first aired in 1990, it was an absolute game-changer. Filmmaker David Lynch's application of his signature surrealist style to a serialized television format paved the way for everything that followed. Watching eccentric FBI Agent Dale Cooper immerse himself in the culture of Twin Peaks, a quirky northwestern town swamped by clandestine affairs and supernatural interference, became a popular American pastime. The show's central mystery of "Who Killed Laura Palmer?" captivated water cooler conversations around the country.
However, a significant ratings dip led to Twin Peaks' cancelation in 1991. Multiple factors led to the show's decrease in viewership:
Though the show still had a loyal cult following, the network inevitably canned it – but not before Lynch returned to deliver one of the most enigmatic and scorched-earth cliffhangers of all-time. When Dale returned from the Black Lodge, an alternate dimension where the supernatural forces of Twin Peaks reside, only to discover that it was a doppelganger possessed by BOB, fans were begging to see what came next. They would eventually have their wish granted almost 25 years later, but that fulfillment would not come in the form of Fire Walk With Me.
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When it became apparent that Fire Walk With Me would not be a continuation of the series but actually a recounting of the final days of Laura Palmer's life, it is understandable why some fans would feel let down. This, however, was not the main complaint made by professional critics at the time of release.
"... this is a morbidly joyless affair," scorns USA Today critic Susan Wloszczyna. "You'll feel as drained as one of Cooper's mugs of joe watching homecoming queen Laura drown in a whirlpool of sex and drugs." This was the common complaint of Fire Walk With Me's contemporary critics: the film was viewed as needlessly dark.
Twin Peaks was, at its heart, a story about a young woman who was abused, exploited, and murdered while her whole town stood by and watched. Anyone who couldn't understand this shouldn't have been reviewing Fire Walk With Me in the first place. Twin Peaks may have been veiled by the lighthearted whimsy of small town melodrama, talking logs, and a whole lot of dancing, but the show was always many shades darker at its core. The emotional whiplash is intentional — Lynch is lifting up the curtain and revealing what network standards were protecting us from. Opening the film with a television being smashed to bits is more than just a jab at ABC executives. If the evil spirits of Twin Peaks travel through electrical currents, the smashing of the television is Lynch allowing that evil to break into plain sight.
Sheryl Lee’s harrowing performance of Laura Palmer cannot be understated. She had years to process how Laura Palmer’s final days would have played out. She captures the torment in ways that are heartbreaking and horrific to watch. She manages to articulate both how she touched the lives of so many in her town while also screaming for help through her actions in ways that nobody can seem to hear. Or maybe in ways that nobody wants to hear.
It’s in the first season of Twin Peaks fourth episode, “Rest in Pain”, when Bobby Briggs lashes out during Laura’s funeral. “You wanna know who killed Laura Palmer?” he says, “you did! We all did!” There are so many people in Laura’s life and not one of them can do anything to stop the inevitable. Harold wants to help her but doesn’t know how. James and Donna are too caught in their own neurochemical drama to recognize Laura’s plight. Sarah Palmer is too close to the situation to look it at objectively; that her husband is sexually abusing their daughter. Laura can’t seem to find a way to make anyone understand what she’s going through and she suffers for it.
We watch her try. In the film’s best sequence, The Pink Room, we watch Laura bring Donna to the club where she is having her body exploited. She’s trying to show Donna the life that she is trapped in, but Donna is too frightened by it to truly understand that Laura is crying for help. The music is too loud and Laura’s words fall on deaf ears. Lee and Ray Wise as Leland’s relationship is essential to making the film work and they pull it off with a frightening level of accuracy. Lee manages to capture the conflicting anger, fear, and love that a person would feel for their sexually abusive parent; Wise makes us feel all the necessary hatred one would feel to an abuser while also making us understand his torment.
A major problem with the original series is that it attempts to let Leland off the hook for his abuse of Laura. The show presents Leland’s actions as being totally the result of BOB’s possession and absolves Leland of any wrongdoing of his own accord. Fire Walk With Me rectifies this. It presents Leland as someone who always had the potential to hurt Laura; BOB just happened to capitalize on Leland’s darkest desires. Where Leland gives into his inner darkness, Laura gives up her life to not let BOB in. The final moments of the film show Laura’s soul trapped in the Red Room. Whether or not the Black Lodge is Hell or something more complicated is never confirmed by Lynch, but what is clear is that the Red Room, with its red curtains and black-and-white, triangularly striped floors, isn’t exactly a pleasant place to be. But Laura sits in her chair, made-up and in a beautiful black gown, staring at an angel and crying tears of joy. Wherever she is now, it’s better than the evil she had to experience on Earth.
With years to process and a third season to flesh out the lore, Fire Walk With Me has been reappraised as yet another Lynchian masterpiece. It is also his most empathetic work. Lee and Lynch’s care and respect for Laura’s pain shows in every frame. Any critic who lambasted the film for being too immersed in the abuse of Laura Palmer missed the point entirely. I’m not saying they deserve 25 years in the Black Lodge, but they do deserve to give their head a shake.