Why Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is one of the most powerful prequels ever

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Mar 23, 2017, 1:00 PM EDT

If you're a fan of Twin Peaks, I'd wager there's at least a 40 percent chance that you don't like Fire Walk With Me, and at least a 20 percent chance that you downright hate it.

David Lynch's chronicle of the last week of Laura Palmer's doomed life, announced just weeks after the series ended, was greeted with boos from critics when it premiered at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, and though it's undergone a re-examination and re-appreciation in recent years, more than a few Peaks fans just can't wrap their heads around it.

Why? Well, it's a bleak little bastard of a movie, that's why. It's all of the darkness of Twin Peaks with almost none of the soap opera irony, quirky humor or disorienting charm. The antics of the Twin Peaks Sheriff's Department are nowhere to be found here. Gone too are the schoolgirl schemes of Audrey Horne and the aw-shucks optimism of Pete Martell. There are no absurd charity wine tastings or conversations at the Double R Diner over slices of cherry pie. There's not even all that much of Special Agent Dale Cooper, the heart of the TV series. There's just a girl wearing a dozen different masks, walking the edge of the abyss like a tightrope while all manner of Lynchian specters from beyond reality hover around her.

So, if you love of all of the strange demonic darkness Lynch brought to the party in the first place, dialed up to an R rating, this is the film for you. If you don't, you might be out of luck. Which is a shame because when taken as a coda to the series, Fire Walk With Me serves as a powerful prequel and tonal companion to the original mystery. And yeah, I know I just said "prequel" and "coda" in the same sentence, but that's not a contradiction. Remember, this is David Lynch we're talking about.

Spoilers ahead for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Oh, and a word of warning: Do not -- I repeat, DO NOT -- attempt to go all chronological and watch the film before you watch the series. You'll be even more confused than the seasoned fans are. Our Mr. Lynch is not exactly a paragon of straightforward storytelling.

One of the frustrating things built into the very nature of prequels is knowing what will happen. If done right, a prequel can add depth and power to events that occur later. If done wrong, you get big chunks of Revenge of the Sith. Fire Walk With Me puts off a lot of people who love Twin Peaks because it's mostly about Laura Palmer, and Laura dies at the end.

We know this going in, and there's no way to escape it because, to the extent that this film has a plot, that's it. Laura is haunted and repeatedly molested by the demon BOB, she finds out BOB is possessing her father Leland, she gets even more self destructive than usual, and then she's murdered.

That is, admittedly, a rather severe simplification of the film, but Laura's final moments are hovering over everything. We barrel toward them in a series of dreamlike, unsettling and even nightmarish sequences, and then that's all she wrote. Just as Laura's death hangs over the whole of Twin Peaks, so too does her own seeming knowledge of her inevitable doom hang over Fire Walk With Me.

The rest of the film tosses out any developments among the rest of Twin Peaks' many strange residents in favor of two primary concerns: Establishing the pattern of violence that leads to Laura's murder, and broadening and deepening the mythology of the Black Lodge and the beings who populate it. If you could care less what happens to Shelly or Audrey or Josie, but you really want more of the Man From Another Place, and MIKE, and the weird magician boy and his grandmother, this is the film for you.

Free of the constraints of network television, as well as (for better or worse) the less dreamy storytelling style of Peaks co-creator Mark Frost, Lynch is free to be as strange and brutal as he wants in this film, and if he's holding back, it doesn't show. The very first recognizable image in the film is of a television set being violently smashed. The network executives can't get us here, Lynch says. Let's go down in the dark together, where the evil is.

Which is actually good news, because if you're not into the brutal murder at the heart of the story, there's a good chance you will at least be into the mythic figures Lynch is further grooming around the margins of the film. The old woman and her magician grandson actually seem to be helpful spirits who warn Laura of danger and maybe have some connection to this weird ring bearing the same symbol Cooper once found in Owl Cave. That ring, which never appears in the series proper, has connections to several different supernatural figures in the story, and in some ways it seems to prevent BOB from possessing Laura (which was, it turns out, his ultimate goal), which means he's driven to kill her but also means she can escape his torment through death. Oh, and if you read things like The Secret History of Twin Peaks, you'll find that the ring has an insane history that would make J.R.R. Tolkien's head explode.

Then, of course, there are all those other connections that Lynch fans love, oddities that are never explained (he did intend to make more films set in this world at the time) but which form part of a greater mythological whole. David Bowie shows up as a long-lost FBI agent just long enough to deliver a bizarre vision connected to BOB and the Man From Another Place, before disappearing again. At one point, a monkey appears, speaks the word "Judy," and then is gone again. The entities from the Black Lodge feed on "garmonbozia," a concentrated form of pain and sorrow gained through acts like Laura's murder, which physically manifests itself as creamed corn. The Man From Another Place suggests at one point that he is actually the severed arm of MIKE, BOB's former friend and collaborator who ultimately had a change of heart and stopped his wicked ways.

Then there's the weird moment that most impacts Twin Peaks the series: As Laura dreams one night, Heather Graham's Annie Blackburn appears in her bed and tells her that Agent Cooper is (or, on Laura's timeline, will be) trapped in the lodge. She asks Laura to write this in her diary, and if Laura did, it grows the Twin Peaks timeline in both directions, making Fire Walk With Me a sequel to the series, if only for a moment.

To my Lynch-loving mind, all of that is worth the price of admission, but to really strike at the heart of what makes Fire Walk With Me indispensable, we have to go back to Laura, and her final descent into death's waiting embrace. So much of David Lynch's work is about beautiful ugliness, those severed, ant-covered ears waiting just beyond the manicured lawns and picket fences. Twin Peaks is no different, and we know this because the show regularly juxtaposes grim murder investigations and odes to how delicious the coffee is.

Lynch once called Fire Walk With Me "my cherry-pie present to the fans of the show – however, one that's wrapped in barbed wire." It's still Twin Peaks, but it's wrapped up in all the despair that comes with Laura's final days, and that's important because it's something we rarely saw in the series. We spent hour after hour hearing about this secret life, these secret tapes, this secret diary. We heard about drug use and prostitution and just how damaged the precious homecoming queen really was. Here, thanks to a truly breathtaking performance by Sheryl Lee, that is all laid bare, and it's ugly and unsettling and often very hard to watch until by the end it's practically operatic in its violent ecstasy. Laura suffered for Twin Peaks, and seeing it posed before us like this makes everything that comes after all the more effective, and even somewhat of a relief.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is an essential piece of Lynchian filmmaking, an essential part of the viscera of Twin Peaks, and a reminder that when you cut into that pretty cherry pie, it bleeds out onto your plate.