The central mystery of Twin Peaks receives her blood-red tinted spotlight in the incomparable film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. After appearing in the show as Maddy Ferguson and in Black Lodge sequences, David Lynch put the “real world” Laura Palmer at the center of his prequel film. The iconic character is portrayed masterfully by Sheryl Lee, whose emotional range places her in the upper echelon of both Twin Peaks and Lynch performances of all time.
In Fire Walk With Me, the context of Laura’s involvement with secret diaries, cocaine addiction, Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine), Bobby killing a guy, and the light at Sparkwood and 21 are finally shown instead of merely discussed. In classic Lynch fashion, the film a source of both answers and more questions, headlined by Lee’s ability to bring Laura back to life.
“She’s preparing a great abundance of food.”
– Special Agent Dale Cooper
Early in the film, Laura’s tragic fate is foretold with a near-perfect description by Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), who has no idea just how transcendent and dangerous his connection to Laura is. The identifying details that Cooper mentions to fellow agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer) is that the next to die is a woman, blond, in high school, sexually active, crying out for help, and using drugs. Laura is hardly able to function without cocaine, as she consistently manipulates Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) to go to extreme lengths to fuel her habit. Laura is able to get Bobby to procure cocaine with a flash of her smile, even after insulting him. Laura’s power over men is seen in both Lee’s charisma and ability to inspire fear.
While Laura has immense power over men, the vices that Laura turns to in her last desperate week show the power BOB has over her, especially coke. The first action we see Laura take is sniffing cocaine in the bathroom of school, just like any typical teenager in 1989 America would. Laura ends her school day by having a steamy conversation with James Hurley that includes this iconic exchange of whispery dialogue:
Laura: I’m gone. Long gone like turkey in the corn.
James: A turkey is one of the dumbest birds on Earth.
Laura: Gobble…gobble gobble.
I am convinced that Sheryl Lee is the only actor that could convincingly deliver this line and am eternally glad that she did.
While Lee’s flair for the dramatic is highlighted in FWWM, her comedic timing adds a new layer of personality to the mythic character. When Laura tells Bobby that she was right behind him but he was too stupid to turn around it is truly funny. These moments of levity are unexpected and truly amusing. In classic Lynch fashion, however, these humorous times are quickly cut with tragedy and horror.
Later in the film, Laura’s cocaine dependence becomes the forefront once again, as she and Bobby venture into the woods to make a major score. Lee’s performance as a drunk and high fiend is hilarious, as she showcases her dance moves and bothers Bobby by poking at him and laughing with delight. Her discovery of a little pine cone and some dirt is an underrated moment in the film and showcases the actress’ incredible ability and range. Comedy soon turns to madness as Bobby shoots and kills the man delivering the cocaine, and Laura’s scream echoes through the forest. Laura then turns and begins to laugh, telling Bobby that he killed his best friend Mike while giggling uncontrollably.
Lee’s ability to terrorize viewers with Laura’s iconic scream is truly nightmare fuel, and there is plenty for her character to exclaim about. To match the horror of her heart-stopping screeches, Lee’s elastic-like face is able to go through unbelievable facial transformations. This is shown during one of the freakiest moments of the film when Laura is talking to Harold Smith about the truth of BOB (Frank Silva). After uttering the cursed phrase “fire walk with me,” Laura becomes a pale-faced demon with dark black and red lips. This moment is pure Lynch, a haunting image backed with an otherworldly music cue followed by an emotional outpouring by Lee. The declaration “BOB IS REAL” through gritted teeth also provides some clarity to viewers who wonder about the validity of Laura’s supernatural tormenter.
“When this kind of fire starts it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first. And the wind rises. And then all goodness is in jeopardy.”
-The Log Lady
Outside of the Roadhouse, Laura receives this entrancing wisdom with great emotion, and seems to reach out in hope that the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) may be able to save her, but knows she cannot. Laura is further affected by Julee Cruise’s banger of a sad song “Questions In A World Of Blue,” which is the perfect backdrop for the gut-wrenching action about to take place.
One of the central character pairings in FWWM is Laura and her best friend Donna Hayward, who is played by Moira Kelly instead of Lara Flynn Boyle. Kelly does a terrific job filling in for Boyle and is a wonderful foil to Lee’s performance as Laura. Donna is the sympathetic watcher, desperate to understand her friend whose emotional and cosmic existence is utterly beyond empathy. One of the most memorable and revealing nights of Laura’s last week is a trip up to Canada that Donna tags along with. After entering the Roadhouse and allowing herself to cry, Laura accepts a signal to receive not one but two gentleman callers from the slimy Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz). A preview of Cool Donna emerges as she attempts to keep pace with the reckless lifestyle of her best friend. Donna is the recipient of a drugged beer, which Laura encourages her to chug-a-lug. The juxtaposition of Donna and Laura is in their innocence, as Donna believes in love and has not experienced a fraction of what her best friend has. Another friend of Laura’s makes an appearance at the party, as Ronette Pulaski shows up to join the good time.
Ever the muffin, Laura fits in with the sleazy and sultry Canadian sex party and seems to have a great time until she notices a drugged and drunk Donna having sex with one of her johns. Laura screams and forces Jacques to carry Donna out of the bar. Laura protects Donna by not telling her what happened the next, but her guilt and worry are clearly written across her face.
Donna is the first innocent that Laura saves, even after she plays a hand in her best friend’s predicament. This is the fire that not only burns in Laura but scorches anyone that has the fate of encountering her. Laura is the last angel, the only one that can save Donna and Ronette. She cannot save herself, because BOB is fully a part of her.
“It’s him! It’s your father!”
In perhaps the most chaotic scene of the film, the man with one arm Phillip Gerard (Al Strobel) comes out of the blue and warns Laura about her father’s malice. After spouting some general Black Lodge-related refrains, Gerard drives away as quickly as he appeared. In an attempt to drown out the truth, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) presses both the engine and brake of his car, creating a loud screeching noise and the smell of burnt engine oil. Laura asks her father if he was home during the first time she saw BOB, which Leland confirms leaving no doubt that BOB and Leland are one and the same.
The father-daughter relationship is crucial to the film. The Queen of Scream, Laura utters a rattling scream when she sees BOB in the corner of her room where her diary is hidden. She then begins to understand the evil truth: Leland is BOB. This is further confirmed at the dinner table where Leland is angered by Laura’s broken heart necklace and inspects her filthy hands. Leland pinches his daughter’s cheek and demands her to wash her hands. The expression of horror and shock that Lee puts on during this scene is sadly mesmerizing. Her eyes are wide with true terror and she is completely unable to speak or even breathe. Laura’s mother Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) senses the danger her daughter is in but can do very little to help her. The helplessness of both Palmer women is heartbreaking, as is Leland’s sobbing and declaration of love later in the evening. A look of realization washes over Leland’s face, and he empathetically tells Laura he loves her, this time holding Laura’s hand gently.
In the Twin Peaks original series, Laura’s haunted past is a referential point and censored by the confines of broadcast television rules and regulations. In FWWM, Laura is opened to the lawlessness of R-rated film and Lynch firmly grasps this freedom. The sex and violence of the film are at an extreme, sending Fire Walk With Me more towards Blue Velvet and Lost Highway than the original series.
One of the most uncomfortable scenes for both viewer and actor is Leland/BOB assault in Laura’s room, which serves as the breaking point for Laura. Wise and Lee have believable father-daughter chemistry, which made the violating action a hard scene to shoot and watch. After experiencing so much pain and confusion Laura must know who BOB is once and for all. With the low hum of the ceiling fan in the background, Laura lies in bed and asks “who are you” over and over. Summoned by her questioning, BOB/Leland appears and crawls over Laura kissing her leg and body. Laura opens her eyes and sees a horrible picture. Leland’s wide-eyed stare and freakish look on his face are horrific. The two actors handle a difficult scene with deft hands, and the hard to feel emotions hit all the more deeply.
Duality is one of the pervasive themes in all of Twin Peaks, and Lee’s performance conveys it masterfully. She is consistently moving from emotional state to emotional state, especially in the film’s final three-scene sequence of her final night. After hopping on James’ bike, the star-crossed lovers speed off into the night. Their exchange in the woods is a masterclass performance by Lee, who portrays every emotional shift to perfection. When Lee insults and slaps James it is hateful and thrilling, and when she embraces him and screams “I love you James!” it is beautiful yet upsetting. After seeing something that shakes her to her core, James and Laura leave the woods. This exit will lead to an even worse situation, and ultimately her death.
At the intersection of Sparkwood and 21, Laura falls off James’ bike and wanders to a red Corvette. Jacques, Ronette, and Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re) await her for the last night of debauchery in a cabin. After begging to not be tied up, Laura’s violent end begins. Leland appears to take out Jacques, which scares Leo away, leaving a bound Laura alone. Leland grabs both Laura and Ronette, carrying them to the abandoned train car.
This is the final location of Laura’s life. She is beaten and bruised by the man she knows as her father and loses all hope of survival. As Ronette prays for her life in the corner, Laura looks into the face of her father. In her final moments, Laura summons what she had looked for in hopes of protection all along: an angel. By her unknown grace, Laura is able to save someone else, but not herself. Laura sees both Leland and BOB as one and the same, and her face becomes stuck in a state of paralyzed fear. A violent thud is heard, and the physical body of Laura Palmer expires. Laura is wrapped in plastic, and the end becomes the beginning.
The consequences of leaving James and his love at the stoplight of Sparkwood and 21 for the brief gratification and punishment from Jacques and Leo are severe. Yet, it must happen. Much like her life, Laura’s death will be a painful journey, hidden from the people who only see the light of her perfection.
Twin Peaks is a story in which the other characters and audience search for the twisted truths of Laura Palmer’s interior mysteries. Alive, dead, or somewhere in between, Laura is Twin Peaks, and the end of the original series, FWWM and The Return prove it. The dynamic duo of Lynch and Lee likely did not know that they would have the opportunity to reunite in a quarter of a century, and this could have been the lasting memory of the end of Twin Peaks. Lynch’s decision to end what could have been the final chapter of his story with a focus on Laura is telling. The wise director who had worked with many of the greats realized the magic he possessed within Lee’s acting skill and created a unique and necessary chapter of the everlasting tale.
At the very end, Lee says goodbye to the earthly Laura as she cries and smiles while the angel version of herself looks on. Laura is now a being of the Lodge, whether good or bad. She sits with Cooper and wears a different look on her face than any time in the film. Her smile is content, and her tears are of joy instead of pain. She had finally found some version of peace, despite what her future and past still may hold. For the rest of the residents of Twin Peaks, there is uncertainty and pain, and joy ahead. The angel has gone away, leaving us to burn in the beauty and terror of her memory.