Filmmaker Retrospective: The Illustrative Cinema of David Lynch

6. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me

Gone is the charm of the town we once loved. A prequel to the hit television series, Fire Walk with Me focuses on the last seven days of Laura Palmers life. The film takes us through the eyes of Laura Palmer, making the film a bleaker effort than the alluring television show. We don’t have time to spend with all the charismatic townsfolk, and are left to deal only with Laura’s horrifying incest, rape, and murder. What the film loses in not matching with the tone of the show, it gains in Lynch’s stylistic choices.

In a move of obvious symbolism, the films credits open with a shot of TV static. Somebody smashes the TV with an axe, both noting the transition from series to film, and the transition from the creative collective of the series to the singular director, Lynch. But it’s also a hint at what this film is about in relation to the Black Lodge. Flat screens and surfaces, such as photographs, paintings, and mirrors are connecting us between one reality and the next, possibly even other time periods.

Despite taking place in a world filled with backward talking demons and dancing midgets, Ray Wise and Sheryl Lee’s performances ground the film in a disturbing reality. Wise seamlessly transitions between playing the murderous demon and the helpless father. In a sobering scene, we see Leland, the father, come to the surface, and consciously tell Laura that he loves her. Likewise, Lee immaculately performs as a girl torn in every direction, determined to destroy herself before her demons can.

Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me

Booed at Cannes, and panned by critics, Fire Walk with Me remains one of Lynch’s most underappreciated films, suffering partly because of the series it was attached to. The fans aren’t wrong, they were right to feel betrayed. The film stands on a different set of legs than the show it’s intending to support.

An iconic dream sequence that once occupied five minutes of an episode had consumed the mythology of the show in it’s finale, and subsequently, it’s prequel film. The combined efforts of those working on the TV series peppered Lynch’s surrealism throughout the show, making it more accessible and appealing to a broader fan base. With Fire Walk with Me, Lynch was out in full force, alienating the portion of its audience that wanted Twin Peaks, not a Lynch feature.

Still, it’s a Lynch film through and through. It’s a spiritual cousin to Blue Velvet, dealing mostly with the superficiality of suburbs and the seedy underbelly that creeps behind white picket fences. Its subversion of the TV show should be viewed as its triumph, not it’s failure.

Without Laura Palmer’s voice in the show, we were treated to the delight of Twin Peaks, and we were equally seduced by it. However, Laura Palmer knew the truth about Twin Peaks darkness, and Lynch understood that seeing the town through her eyes wouldn’t be the same picnic.


7. Lost Highway (1997)

Lost Highway (1997)

Cameras are a frightening technology because they record the truth. This is the driving fear behind Lost Highway, a fear that Lynch himself shares. As the main character of the film states, “I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.” With the modern implosion of camera phones, where essentially anything can be recorded at any time, it’s a wonder Lynch doesn’t suffer constant panic attacks.

Lost Highway follows the story of jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman). As he and his wife (Patricia Arquette) silently cope with their crumbling marriage, they begin to receive a set of tapes of someone invading their home. The tapes get progressively more invasive, until the final tape shows Fred standing over the dead body of his wife, and he is convicted for her murder. This is the first forty five minutes of the film, and while it’s mostly exhausting setup, it remains some of Lynch’s most haunting work.


Following his stint with Twin Peaks material, Lost Highway saw Lynch continue to explore themes of duality within the self. Pullman’s character seemingly transforms into a young auto mechanic, and Patricia Arquette plays two separate women in equally dangerous situations. It drops the lighthearted humor seen in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart for a darker approach similar to Eraserhead and Fire Walk with Me.

While not achieving the same attention and praise of his other works, Lost Highway is just as much a Lynchian masterpiece. Following the themes of male anxiety that are prevalent in Eraserhead, Lost Highway tackles them in a different way. Instead of being about the fear of male responsibility, Lost Highway is about impotence, and the inability to perform.


8. The Straight Story (1999)


It was with Lynch’s next effort that the unthinkable happened. Walt Disney Pictures released a G-rated David Lynch film. The Straight Story is a caramel candied Lynch film, foregoing his signature lens and abstract narrative in favor of a simplistic straightforward, heart-warming tale.

It tells the true story of Alvin Straight, an elderly man who rode 240 miles on a John Deere lawnmower to reach his brother who had recently suffered a stroke. Traveling at only 5 miles an hour, the journey took over six weeks. The film was shot on the actual route taken by Alvin Straight and all scenes were shot in chronological order.

Instead of tackling superficiality, and undergrowth, The Straight Story is about family, forgiveness, and the kindness of strangers. Alvin encounters various obstacles on his journey, and nearly breaks the lawnmower after falling down a steep hill, but it’s through the help of his chance encounters that he is able to finally make it to his brother. Along the way, we learn of Alvin’s secrets, a past he has been running from.


Part of the films rich sentimentality comes from the unsaid. Alvin is old, and is spurred to make the arduous trek due to his brother’s brush with mortality. As he travels, Alvin expresses his desire to do things with his brother that they did as children. At its core, this is a film about longing to return to innocence, to a time when family was our center. Alvin’s grief over his wartime experiences furthers his desire to be rid of their weight, and to have his past wiped clean.

Lynch refers to the film as his most experimental effort, and rightly so. In the career of a surrealist, a straightforward narrative would be uncharacteristically experimental. It features drawn out montages of sprawling fields of corn that slow the films pacing. The length of Alvin’s journey is definitely felt, but somehow, this adds to the pictures’ honesty. The countryside feels as warm and inviting as the people Alvin connects with.


9. Mulholland Drive (2001)


In the city of dreams, no one is safe from the clouding power of illusion. With the intent of originally being a TV pilot, Mulholland Drive is Lynch’s attempted return to TV after a decade since Twin Peaks. The film remains one of Lynch’s most honest works, transcending above his murky explorations of the subconscious.

Described as a “poisonous valentine to Hollywood,” Mulholland Drive follows Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a doe-eyed aspiring actress who has just arrived in Los Angeles to chase after her dream. She finds a young woman who calls herself Rita hiding in her new apartment. Rita suffers from amnesia and can’t recall her true identity. They find that Rita’s purse contains over $100,000 and a mysterious blue key.

The network was unhappy with the way the pilot turned out, and decided not to air it. Lynch rewrote the script with a resolution in order to transform the story into a feature film. The film takes a shift in the final third of the movie, where the rewritten ending comes into play. Everything up until this point appears to have been a lie.


This give Mulholland Drive certain layers that may have not been prevalent in the TV version of the same material. There’s self-awareness to the story, taking place in Hollywood. David Lynch, the master of dream cinema, addresses the clouding, harmful powers that dreams can have on an individual, specifically within the industry that he works.

Having received critical acclaim upon its premiere at Cannes, the film was picked up by Universal Pictures and released theatrically. Lynch won Best Director at Cannes and was nominated for the same award by the Academy. Considered by many to be Lynch’s magnum opus, Mulholland Drive transcended his other works in how widely praised it was, while still remaining as incoherent and dreamy as his other films.


10. Inland Empire (2006)

Inland Empire David Lynch

Lynch’s latest, and potentially last film appropriately sums up his career. At three hours long, it goes the extra mile to cover all of Lynch’s experimentations, styles, and themes. Even disregarding the plot and execution, we are revisiting faces in Inland Empire (Laura Dern, Justin Theroux, Harry Dean Stanton, Laura Harring) whose appearances stretch across Lynch’s career. In true Lynch fashion, however, the film is as incoherent as any of his other works, behaving more like a spider web of disconnected images and events.

Lynch shot the film without a completed screenplay, handing each actor several freshly written pages each day. Inland Empire is Lynch working at his most improvisational. And yet the films story seems to cover similar ground for Lynch. Laura Dern plays an actress in Hollywood, similar to Watts’ character in Mulholland Drive.

She discovers an otherworldly demon-like being called The Phantom that hypnotizes its victims, similar to BOB possessing his victims in Twin Peaks. She even comes into contact with a doppelganger, continuing themes of duality seen through Lost Highway.

inland empire

In many ways, Inland Empire feels like Lynch’s 8½ or his Persona – a film dealing with cinema that seemingly collapses in on itself and breaks any semblance of a fourth wall. Much like his paintings, it’s not one thing or the other, but a mosaic of images and emotions. It would be a sufficient enough bookend to the career of one of the most unique filmmakers of our time, but I will not attempt to hide my desire for him to make more.

Author Bio: Ethan Levinskas is a writer living in North Hollywood where he enjoys a consistent diet of oven baked pizzas and blessing each slice with his shameless tears. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Cinema Art + Science (yes, that is the degree name) at Columbia College Chicago with a focus in screenwriting. His goal is to one day have people enjoy his stories from a reclined leather seat with a bag of overpriced popcorn in their hands.