Jessai Flores

Spoilers ahead… if you aren’t familiar with a TV series that came out in the 1990s…

Last Sunday, I drove home to Boston to see a 35mm screening of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” — released in 1992 — at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square. I settled into my endearingly lumpy seat, and the film began with a woman’s scream and a television smashed with a pipe…

Just over 30 minutes into the film, the iconic “Welcome to Twin Peaks” sign appears on screen, with Angelo Badalamenti’s hypnotizing theme song accompanying — an indication to any Twin Peaks fan that they are entering a familiarly strange and disturbing world. But this Twin Peaks is different from the world of the show; Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), whose mysterious death animates the television series, is still alive.

She walks down the street of an idyllic neighborhood, her skin dappled with sunlight streaming through the tree branches. She is contemplative, preoccupied, but a smile dances across her face nevertheless. 17 years old with a mane of blonde hair and her school books in her arms, she is the picture of innocence. It is tempting to stop the movie here, to allow ourselves to believe that Laura is merely thinking about a crush or appreciating the weather. Instead, the film goes on, and the nightmarish lead-up to Laura’s death unfolds.

The beginning of Laura’s long list of admirers quickly presents itself: James Hurley (James Marshall), the brooding but earnest secret lover; Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), the goonish boyfriend whom Laura uses for cocaine and sex; Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly), her naive best friend; and Harold Smith (Lenny Von Dohlen), a recluse. Laura is beloved, and she knows it. She drifts from one person to the next, sucking their attention and love with a vampiric mania. She shifts seamlessly from sickly sweet to mortally terrified to dangerously manipulative. She wreaks havoc on those around her to distract from the terror in her own life, as a means of gaining some control over her otherwise violated existence, violently fractured by an evil force called Bob (Frank Silva) who has been sexually abusing her since she was 12.

At night, Laura lives a secret life — heading into the woods with Bobby to score cocaine and murdering someone in the process, doing drugs and working as a prostitute at the local Bang Bang Bar, or sneaking off to meet men at a cabin in the woods, an act which will ultimately lead to her death. Under the neon lights of the bar or in the glaringly bright light of day, Laura’s demons follow her.

As the film progresses, linearity is abandoned, and the division between the “real world” — if such a thing exists in this movie — and the dreamscape of Laura’s nightmares evaporates. It becomes impossible to predict where the next scene will take us as the preceding one fades out. Laura’s face anchors the transitions. Sheryl Lee delivers one of the most heartbreaking performances I have seen in recent memory. With each widening of her eyes or tear slipping down her cheek, she embodies the abject terror of a young woman forced to witness her own demise. In the hands of a less skilled actress, Laura’s humanity might become secondary to the dizzying visuals and bizarre narrative movement of this film, but Lee ensures that Laura remains the beating heart of this film.

The Palmer House becomes a house of horrors for our protagonist. As cinematographer Ron Garcia’s camera roams through the house from Laura’s point of view, each corner turned and door opened promises a new terrifying reality. There is nowhere safe for Laura to go, even in the light of day. The most terrifying scenes of “Fire Walk with Me” take place at the Palmer’s dinner table. What starts as a normal conversation between a father and an uninterested teenager quickly verges into violent territory as Leland (Ray Wise), Laura’s father, catches sight of Laura’s half of a heart-shaped friendship necklace. He crosses the table, grabbing the necklace from her chest. “Did you get this from your lover?” he demands. She stares back at him, her eyes wide and glistening in fear. Her hands shake and her mouth frowns in pain as he grabs her cheek with his thumb, a gesture of affection escalated to inflict pain. She sobs silently at the dinner table. There is no one in the world to protect Laura; she is completely alone. This scene — like any between Laura and her father — is particularly disturbing to watch with the knowledge that Leland is Bob. The man terrorizing her and sending her down a path of destruction has been inside her house all along. For viewers of the television show, this is no revelation. But for Laura, the tragic discovery trickles in slowly, delivered in puzzle pieces she initially tries to reject.

By virtue of the film’s departure from a coherent structure and its startling diversions into the surreal, the two-hour-plus runtime wears on the audience. Certain scenes feel almost gratuitous, like when a white horse briefly appears and vanishes in Laura’s mother’s bedroom for no discernible reason. As a result, the pacing falters in the last third of the film. The film also starts with a digression into the murder of Teresa Banks and only reaches Twin Peaks proper half an hour into the film. And for those unacquainted with the television show, the film wouldn’t make sense. “Fire Walk with Me” is a thematically and stylistically challenging film targeted at a very specific audience. Unsurprisingly, it was met with negative reviews when it was first released in the early 1990s and has only come to be critically appreciated decades since.

As with any David Lynch film, this movie offers few answers. Leland kills Laura, wrapping her in plastic and setting her adrift. But the last we see of Laura is in the Black Lodge, an inexplicable metaphysical space that figures prominently in every iteration of “Twin Peaks.” The music swells, and a white light flashes across Laura’s face. She begins to laugh and cry simultaneously. An angel arrives to offer her absolution. She is free, or so an audience who has watched her suffer and completely lose herself must believe.

“Your Laura disappeared,” she tells James on the night of her death. “It’s just me now.”

Idone Rhodes is a junior in Pierson majoring in English and Film and Media Studies. She will be writing a regular film column for WKND. Rhodes was formerly a managing editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine.