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.
Portions of this article that represent comparable content first appeared in my review of the UK Blu-ray edition of this film.
"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.
In Japan, 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me' is currently distributed by Comstock Group and Paramount Home Entertainment. Unlike the previously-reviewed import disc from the UK, the Japanese Blu-ray is region-free and will function in any standard American Blu-ray player. (Japan is a Blu-ray Region A territory like the United States in any case.) However, the DVD in the package that contains most of the bonus features is unfortunately locked to Region 2 and can only be played in a DVD or Blu-ray player with region code modification (if you're in the United States). On the plus side, the content on that DVD is at least all in NTSC format.
The 2-disc set comes packaged in a black Blu-ray keepcase within a very handsome glossy slipcover. The Blu-ray is marketed as the "David Lynch Restore Version" (sic.). Unlike the same studio's recent Blu-ray edition of 'Eraserhead', the 'Fire Walk With Me' disc has both chapter stops and a Scene Selections menu. (I'm sure that David Lynch is unhappy about that.) All menus on both discs are in the English language and are easy to navigate.
In a clear improvement over the botched UK Blu-ray that I reviewed recently, the Japanese disc is properly encoded at 1080p resolution at a standard 24 fps frame rate. It runs at the correct playback speed without any 4% speed-up issues.
In general, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is satisfyingly sharp, with nice clarity and vibrant colors, especially in bright daylight scenes. The 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.
In comparison to the UK Blu-ray, the Japanese copy is slightly darker, with better black levels. This isn't a major difference, but to my eye, the contrast on the Japanese disc appears more accurate.
I've long wondered why David Lynch chose to shoot this movie in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, rather than 2.35:1 widescreen like the majority of his other films. I suppose that he wanted to maintain some consistency with the look of the television series, yet he takes great pains to distance himself from television in so many other respects. This feels like a missed opportunity, but at least the composition that he chose is presented properly.
Like all previous home video releases, Agent Desmond's disappearance in this edition of the film concludes with a fade-to-black. The original U.S. theatrical prints ended this scene with a fade-to-white, but Lynch apparently rethought that edit after the fact. The reason for this change is one of the film's many mysteries.
The soundtrack on the Japanese Blu-ray is provided in PCM 5.1 format. As I've discussed in earlier reviews, David Lynch dislikes surround sound, and all of his "5.1" sound mixes actually only have 3.1 active channels. The back speakers are completely silent throughout. This is an artistic decision, not a mastering error.
Because the disc is authored at the proper frame rate, the audio suffers no speed-up or pitch shift issues. The tempo of the musical score runs at the correct speed, and the actors' voices sound accurate. The Japanese disc is also free of the glitches that cause brief moments of distortion in the UK Blu-ray's soundtrack.
When 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 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. The disc has no English subtitling options at all. True fans probably have most of this dialogue memorized already, but this is likely to be a problem for everyone else.
Like all David Lynch films, 'Fire Walk With Me' has a fascinating sound design with plenty of unique ambient tones and strange noises roiling beneath the surface of scenes. Most of these are rendered clearly. However, the top end of the mix is a little too rolled off, which dulls some of the sound effects. This was an issue with the Lynch-approved DVD soundtrack as well. For example, when the One-Armed Man confronts Leland and Laura at about 87 minutes into the movie, the sound of a dog barking should rip through all the other sounds in the scene as though tearing at the very fabric of the film, but here it's barely distinguishable unless you specifically listen for it. The audio on the old Laserdisc edition was crisper and better delineated in this regard.
This should not be taken as a damning complaint. The soundtrack is very good overall. In particular, Angelo Badalamenti's score is very rich and resonant.
The Blu-ray appears to recycle all of its bonus features from an older Japanese DVD edition. Aside from the trailer on Disc 1, the other supplements are all found on the DVD in the case. Frustratingly, the disc auto-plays directly into the first featurette unless you manually select the main menu.
'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.
This Japanese import Blu-ray is a big improvement over the previously-reviewed UK disc. It's Region A friendly, is encoded at the proper resolution and frame rate, and includes a few supplements (though none too exciting). It also has very nice packaging. On the downside, the disc has no English subtitles at all, not even for scenes with obscured dialogue. It's also quite expensive. I hesitate to call this the definitive Blu-ray edition, but for now, it's the best we have.