Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me ★★★★★

With Showgirls, the most immolating American film of the 1990s, a violent rupture amid a decade of sleek cool and self-conscious irony. The ax through the TV. The woman who mimes in symbolism, the most direct trolljob Lynch ever pulled on the people who try to "solve" his work. Deer Meadow, the living ghost town that inverts Twin Peaks so much that even the diner stands out for how miserable perfunctory it is, a place that doesn't even sell food so much as calories. Twin Peaks itself, drained of nearly all its comical or even just innocent characters, no cop in sight as Laura barrels headlong toward her end. Ray Wise converting the most physical, overwhelming performance in the history of American TV into something even more feral, all quivering rage. He plays Leland the way Pete Postlethwaite played the father in Distant Voices, Still Lives, a domestic tyrant who seems to emanate a copper taste in the air when he nears. But like Postlethwaite's pater, Leland buries a genuine capacity for tenderness beneath the fury, albeit of a kind that only makes the anger worse because it stems from an inability to cope with that love.

Of course, Wise is not center stage here, and even his intensity pales in comparison to Sheryl Lee's all-timer performance. Finally allowed to provide her own account, Laura shatters the preconceptions of her spread by characters on the show. This is a Falconetti-esque performance, a study of total agony performed in endless close-up, scanning the tremors, tics, widening eyes and tightening mouth as nothing but fear and pain slam into Laura. Watch her absolute frozen terror when Leland explodes at her for not washing her hands before dinner, or the way she plummets to her own sorrowful hell in One-Eyed Jack's while listening to Julee Cruise, only to rally to sneer at two johns who come to pay for her time. The word "fearless" is trotted out far too much when discussing acting, which is to say that it is used at all, but this is one of a handful of performances that abundantly deserves the description. It's nearly impossible to look at Lee head-on, lest you be blinded by the thermite scorch of her work, a total depiction of unending, self-eradicating fear.

Many shows in the wake of Twin Peaks cribbed its core structure of a serial narrative deliberately built around an empty center, around the absence of a character subsequently defined by the aftershocks of grief and memory. But Peaks represents the peak of this form precisely because of this ancillary product, which proves that all the remembrances, gossip and revelation that a person cannot be defined without their own input. Yes, you know what will happen in this film, in broad strokes, but the radical nature of Lee's performance and Lynch's fragmented, thoroughly splenetic capture of that downfall scorches any notion of Lynch as cruel sadist; rather, it proves him the most empathetic American director of his age. The final shot, of Laura finding ecstatic release in death, the knowledge that she is finally going to be safe, is electrifying. To this point, all of Laura's smiles had been painted on, either willfully sarcastic or desperately supplicant. Here, though, it is pure, unvarnished joy and relief, and at the end of two hours of blunt torture, it is one of the greatest, yet most tragic, catharses in cinema.

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