In a series of reviews and blog posts filed under the heading "Auteur Theory," I have made it a project to revisit the career of cult director David Lynch, rewatch his entire feature filmography in sequential order, and chart the progression of this iconoclastic artist through both his highs and lows.
"Auteur Theory" Article Index
"We live inside a dream."
It is neither an accident nor a coincidence that David Lynch's 1992 film 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me' opens with the image of a television set being smashed to pieces. Just two short years earlier, the first season of the 'Twin Peaks' TV series was a huge ratings success and a pop culture phenomenon. Unfortunately, a lot happened in that two-year interval. The public fell out of love with 'Twin Peaks' almost as quickly as it had fallen into love with the show in the first place. As its ratings declined, the ABC network lost confidence in the series and began shuffling it around the schedule, delaying episodes, and frustrating even the die-hard fans who still wanted to watch it every week. By the end of its second, final season, hardly anyone even noticed when the show limped to its conclusion on a Monday night in the middle of June, a good two months after its previous episode had aired. Burning with feelings of betrayal and resentment, Lynch made arrangements to carry his beloved property to the big screen, and he wanted everyone to know that he wasn't messing around.
The reasons that 'Twin Peaks' flamed out are myriad and complicated. At the time, serial dramas were a rarity on American television, and none had ever required viewers to pay such strict attention to its plot continuity and clues as 'Twin Peaks' did. A viewer who missed an episode could fall hopelessly lost in the narrative, with little chance of catching up until re-runs that might air months later. In the days before DVRs or On-Demand instant streaming, audiences weren't ready for that sort of commitment, and grew frustrated that Lynch and company dragged the solution to the show's mystery out for so long. Compounding this problem were some obvious artistic missteps in the second season. Lynch himself stepped away from the series for a time to make his film 'Wild at Heart' and pursue other interests. He left it in the hands of his collaborators, who struggled to find a new direction for the story after the revelation of Laura Palmer's murderer. Storylines meandered, overemphasized goofy humor, and simply weren't as compelling as those in the first season. Although the show pulled itself back together for the final run of episodes, by that point, most of the audience had long since abandoned it.
Nonetheless, David Lynch wasn't ready to let go. He wanted to revive 'Twin Peaks' on the big screen (perhaps even as a franchise of films), and to reclaim it as his own personal vision, unconstrained by the limitations of network television. Even to that end, however, he made some unconventional decisions that alienated both new viewers and many existing fans.
First off, even though the movie is framed as a prequel that takes place before the TV series, it assumes that viewers are aware of certain plot points (including the identity of Laura's killer) and freely divulges information that shouldn't be revealed until late in the series. Many of the events depicted were previously described in the show, and Lynch's use of symbolism is derived entirely from things learned in the series. Without proper context, the significance of these scenes may seem unclear or even meaningless. The film makes no concessions for new viewers who hoped to pick up the 'Twin Peaks' story from the chronological beginning. It absolutely requires a thorough knowledge and understanding of the entire series to comprehend its narrative.
Meanwhile, the movie basically ignores the fact that the TV show ended on a cliffhanger. Fans that expected closure to the storylines involving FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, Sheriff Harry S. Truman, the coquettish Audrey Horne, the enigmatic Log Lady or many of the program's other endearing characters were left unsatisfied. Few of these even appear in the movie, and those that do aren't given much screen time. A critical character, Laura's best friend Donna Hayward, had to be recast with a new actress (Moira Kelly) when Lara Flynn Boyle wasn't available to reprise the role. We spend the first half hour with brand new characters we've never seen before: FBI agents Chet Desmond and Sam Stanley (Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland), as they investigate a related murder in another town. Open mysteries involving the Black Lodge and its supernatural denizens are left unresolved. The movie poses more questions than it answers.
Gone also is much of the levity that took the edge off the darker aspects of the series and drew in many viewers. What humor the movie has is mostly packed into that first half hour in Deer Meadow, and much of it is mean-spirited in nature. The town functions as sort of a mirror opposite to the Twin Peaks we know so well. The sheriff is incompetent and unhelpful, the local diner waitress is a rude old hag, and the coffee is bad. Chet Desmond (his initials are the inverse of Dale Cooper's) is impatient, confrontational, and plays a cruel trick on his partner for a laugh. After this prologue, the action finally moves to Twin Peaks to depict the last seven days in the life of Laura Palmer, the discovery of whose dead body started the TV show. From this point on, almost all humor vanishes, and the film becomes a harrowing, uncompromising tale of sexual abuse, mental illness, drug addiction, prostitution and finally murder.
To be sure, this isn't easy viewing. Whereas the original show was a collaboration with veteran TV writer Mark Frost, the movie is pure, undiluted and unrestrained David Lynch. It contains all of the trademarks of his cinematic style: abstract symbols, bizarre unexplained events, dark surrealism, intense violence, graphic sexuality, and fragmented narrative time.
'Fire Walk With Me' is an imperfect film. Its radical swings in mood and tone from (intentionally) corny soap opera melodrama to psychosexual horror thriller are extreme even by David Lynch's standards. Its story is also so hermetically sealed in its own universe that the movie almost willfully refuses to let in any but the most passionate of the 'Twin Peaks' faithful. Even among those, Lynch seems perversely determined to spite his fans by throwing in numerous non sequitur new mysteries ("We're not gonna talk about Judy at all!") that he'll introduce for a moment, only to shuffle off without further elaboration or resolution, never to be heard from again.
Yet the film is also a beautiful, haunting and poetic journey into the life of a broken girl. As a coda to the 'Twin Peaks' saga, 'Fire Walk With Me' is a distillation of all the themes that ran throughout the series. It brings the story to conclusion by taking us back to what it was really all about in the first place. Laura Palmer was the very heart and soul of 'Twin Peaks', and though we may have thought that we knew her through flashbacks, Sheryl Lee's complicated, emotionally raw performance convinces us that she was more complex than we could ever understand.
'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me' was released on DVD in the United States by New Line Home Entertainment back in 2002. As far as I'm aware, the movie's North American distribution rights are still held by either New Line or its parent company, Warner Home Video. To date, neither has demonstrated any interest in releasing the film on Blu-ray. Fortunately, the situation is more hopeful in international territories. Blu-ray editions of the movie have seen release in countries including France, the UK and Japan.
The copy under review here comes from the UK, as distributed by Universal Studios Home Entertainment and a label called IndiVision. The movie can be purchased either separately or as part of a David Lynch box set that also includes new editions of 'Eraserhead', 'Dune', 'Blue Velvet', 'Wild at Heart' and 'Lost Highway'. Unfortunately, the handsome packaging of the box set is its greatest asset. Most of the Blu-rays in the box are compromised in one way or another, including this one.
The UK disc is locked to Region B playback and will require a compatible Blu-ray player to operate. The disc will not function in a standard American Blu-ray player without a region code modification. Further, the film's video is encoded at a 50 Hz frame rate that will be incompatible with many American Blu-ray players and HDTVs.
Somebody really screwed this one up. The first thing to note here is that the international rights to 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me' are owned by French studio MK2, which released the film on Blu-ray in France back in 2010. Based on the studio logos at the beginning of the movie, it's clear that MK2 licensed the title to IndiVision and Universal, and presumably provided the video master as well. Why is this important? Even though MK2's French Blu-ray was authored in 1080p resolution at the worldwide standard 24 fps frame rate, the Universal disc is instead encoded in 1080i format at 50 Hz. This suggests that the video on the disc was sourced from a European broadcast TV master in error, rather than the proper Blu-ray master. Which studio is at fault for this, I cannot say for certain. Regardless, this means that, in addition to being interlaced, the video runs 4% too fast, much like a PAL DVD would.
The interlacing issue is more bothersome in principle than in practice. Either your Blu-ray player or HDTV will have to deinterlace the video before it can be displayed on a 1080p panel anyway. (Of course, some devices may do this better than others.) Generally speaking, the 1080i/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is satisfyingly sharp, with nice clarity and vibrant colors, especially in bright daylight scenes. The 1.85:1 image is detailed enough to expose the fabric texture of the blue rose pinned to Lil's dress, thus revealing that it's an artificial flower. I doubt that even the theatrical prints had that level of transparency. (I certainly don't recall noticing this before.) The presence of mild film grain has not been wiped away with any overt Digital Noise Reduction filtering.
While I wasn't able to compare this UK disc to the earlier French copy, I have the recent Japanese edition (also licensed from MK2) on hand. On top of the resolution and frame rate issues (the Japanese version is authored at the proper 1080p/24), the UK copy is slightly brighter, which emphasizes grain and video noise. This isn't a major difference, but to my eye, the contrasts and grain level on the Japanese disc appear more accurate.
The frame rate error is not something that most viewers will be able to detect by eye. That will have more impact on the disc's sound quality, as I'll describe next.
The soundtrack on the UK Blu-ray is provided only in PCM 2.0 stereo format. Both the French and Japanese Blu-rays have 5.1 audio, as did the David Lynch-approved DVD edition from 2002. As I've discussed in earlier reviews, Lynch dislikes surround sound anyway, and all of his "5.1" soundtracks actually only have 3.1 active channels. In this regard, the stereo mix on this Blu-ray doesn't lose much in terms of envelopment or directionality.
Because the UK disc was mistakenly authored at the 50 Hz frame rate, the movie is sped up 4%, similar to a PAL DVD. Some viewers will be more sensitive to this than others. I happen to be very sensitive to it. Even though the disc seems to have been pitch-corrected to compensate for the speed-up, it still doesn't sound right to me. The tempo of the musical score is too fast, and the actors' voices are still pitched too high, with a slight metallic ring. This is especially noticeable in the sounds of Kiefer Sutherland's and Kyle MacLachlan's voices.
As if that weren't bad enough, the UK Blu-ray suffers several authoring glitches where the soundtrack distorts briefly. A very clear example of this occurs at time code 2:06:41. The Japanese disc does not have this error.
When David Lynch remixed the movie's soundtrack for the 2002 DVD release, he made a controversial decision to increase the dialogue volume during the famous "Pink Room" scene. As it played in theaters, dialogue in this scene was completely inaudible beneath the much louder music, and was subtitled in English. This change was greeted with much ire from fans. The Blu-ray restores the original version. Most of the dialogue in the Pink Room is completely unintelligible, as it should be. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray neglects to provide subtitles for this scene or any of the backwards dialogue in the Red Room scenes. Although the UK disc does have an optional English subtitle track, it runs for the entirety of the movie. Essentially, viewers who don't already have the dialogue memorized will need to manually toggle the subtitles on and off during the appropriate scenes, assuming that they're familiar enough with the movie to know the proper cues for this.
Universal's Blu-ray is bereft of bonus features. It has no added value content at all.
'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me' is one of David Lynch's most difficult and least appreciated movies. The film requires a thorough knowledge of the 'Twin Peaks' history, continuity and mythology to fully understand. Upon release, it was both a critical and box office disaster. (Vincent Canby of the New York Times said of it: "It's not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be.") Confused audiences stayed away, and even fans of the series were left divided. For those who count themselves among its defenders, it's a very beautiful and moving work of art.
Sadly, the UK Blu-ray is a mess. It's locked to Region B, has no bonus features and is encoded at the wrong frame rate. Fans are advised to seek out the superior French or Japanese import Blu-ray editions instead. I'll have more information on the latter of those in a follow-up review soon.