From the Vault: Fire Walk with Sheryl Lee

This essay was first published at my old site, in a different form, four years ago. Sheryl Lee had a birthday this past week (the day before my birthday, in fact), so it felt like the right time to revisit her tragic and unforgettable work as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

Sheryl Lee is extremely talented and should’ve become a massive star. She has one of the most evocatively expressive faces in all of cinema and television. Her bedroom eyes are especially hypnotic, as is her smile. Few actresses have ever been better at portraying both seductively blissed-out melancholia and pure, absolute terror. These are the two primary emotional states she toggles between most as Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s brutal and unrelenting film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me(1992). I’ve long held the belief that Lee’s work here is one of the finest performances ever committed to film. It’s an astonishing tour-de-force, the kind of acting that haunts you forever.

A prequel to the original Twin Peaks televisions series—which chronicled the search for Laura Palmer’s killer—Fire Walk With Me explores just how depressing Laura’s life was before her gruesome death. Forgoing much of the series’ deliciously weird humor, the film can at times feel like an relentless exercise in psychological misery porn. As viewers, we know Laura’s fate, which only enhances the sense of doom that practically suffocates every frame of the film. It’s difficult to watch, as Laura’s life spirals straight down to hell (or, the Black Lodge). You’d be hard-pressed to name an actress put through the wringer quite like Lee is in this film. At various points, she’s screaming, being screamed at, crying, naked, coked out of her mind, and losing her grip on reality. It’s almost cruel, and it must’ve taken quite the psychological toll on Lee. Our hearts ache for Laura, thanks to Lee’s monumental performance.

Women in horror are routinely made to suffer. Fear and hysteria are often essential ingredients to a horror actress’s performance. Here, Lee is asked to portray Laura’s slowly deteriorating mental state as she descends further into madness as the film progresses. In a role that other actresses might steer towards overwrought showiness, Lee instead simply inhabits the fragile heart of a teenager being abused, both physically and psychologically. The mania and depression arise naturally out of her assured performance. In the original series, Lee was mostly just a face, a constant reminder of the dark and dirty secrets lurking underneath the unremarkable, Anytown USA facade of Twin Peaks, Washington. With the film, David Lynch gave Lee a major role to sink her teeth into, and Lee responded by absolutely owning it.

Laura is a busy girl during her final days among the living. Her life is spinning wildly out of control. On the surface, we see meals on wheels and homecoming queen honors. Underneath that lies a life full of stripping and copious sex with seemingly everyone (even Benjamin Horne!), not to mention the unspeakable horror of being repeatedly raped by her father (who was possessed by BOB), all leading up to her tragic, utterly heartbreaking death.

Lee transforms the distressing final week of Laura’s life into a poignant elegy for a life that once held much promise, but was defiled and destroyed by a supernatural force that, pointedly, wore the face of a man. And BOB isn’t the only one mistreating Laura. Men in Twin Peaks wanted one thing from Laura: she was a prize to be fondled and fucked, but otherwise not give a damn about. Her life and her fate offer powerful commentary on the sad treatment of women in both films and real life: used and abused, then left for dead.

In Lynch’s 2018 series Twin Peaks: The Return, Lee was given another opportunity to add to Laura’s story in rich, complex, and wonderfully confounding ways. Once again, she was astonishing. Over the course of two series and one film, Lee was able to make the mysterious dead girl at the center of Twin Peaks into a exquisitely complex and beloved character.

Lee inhabits the role with a frightening intensity that few have ever matched. In terms of women-in-emotional-or-physical-distress cinema, it resides in that rarified air alongside other standout work like Monica Vitti in Red Desert (1964), Geena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974), or Dee Wallace in Cujo (1983), to name just three. Lee’s work leaves me emotionally shattered by the film’s end. It’s one of the essential performances of nineties cinema—and one of the most devastating in movie history. On certain days, I even think it might be the most devastating I’ve ever seen.

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