Directors like David Lynch aren’t supposed to have hit TV shows and appear on the cover of Time; they’re supposed to tunnel ever deeper into their private obsessions, even if it means testing fan goodwill and bewildering or annoying everybody else. After ABC pressured Lynch and Peaks co-creator Mark Frost to unmask Laura Palmer’s killer midway through Season 2, Lynch lost interest and wandered off, leaving other people to interpret his vision and keep the soap-opera wheels spinning; hence the curious story lines about Project Blue Book, a mysterious cave painting that prefigured the blast-door map from Lost, and the appearance of special guest star Billy Zane. With Fire Walk With Me, Lynch brought it all back home, reframing the show’s mythology along more traditionally Lynchian lines and casting Laura Palmer as an almost Christ-like martyr caught in a Manichaean struggle between darkness and light.
Does it work if you haven’t seen the TV show? As Lynch might put it, gosh, no. (It’s a prequel, but it bends time and space to wrap up a few stray plot threads from the series — if you’re working your way through the show on DVD, treat the movie like a coda or you’ll be lost.) But that’s what’s fascinating about it — in some ways, Lynch’s most uncompromising and unrelenting movie is the one he made while beating the dead ghost-horse of a canceled soap opera. Let us now appreciate the most underappreciated David Lynch movie that doesn’t involve sandworms and Sting in metal bikini briefs.