A Lifetime in Film 1989 #15: Twin Peaks (Pilot)

If I was going to break the rules for anybody, it was going to be David Lynch. Yes the Twin Peaks pilot is not really a movie, but in my defense Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost had no idea that it would be picked up for series, so they shot a feature length 94 minute pilot episode, hoping to release it in theaters as a back-up plan to the show not getting picked up. Of course, the show did end up being picked up and the pilot ended up serving as an introduction to the series and (most of) the main characters that would populate the show’s three seasons and movie Fire Walk With Me. As set up for what turned out to be an epic crime/mystery show spanning decades, it more than does the job. As a movie, it almost works. There is no ending and none of the questions being raised are answered. Yet, Lynch’s cinematic sensibilities are inescapable. His amazing ability of making a mountain out of a molehill is already apparent in the first episode.

It starts out as a simple murder mystery, but it quickly escalates to a series of overly melodramatic, downright strange scenes that make you want to find out what happens to these characters as soon as the episode has ended. Lynch is not afraid of staging this as a series of scenes of people talking to each other, mostly indoors. He knows that the only way to truly engross the viewer is to get them to care about the characters. None of them can be easily “read” when they’re first introduced. None are easy to pin down. Maybe the most accessible is Sheriff Harry S. Truman (yes, that is the name they chose) who’s aloofness counters the unpredictable demeanor of the rest of the characters. Played by Michael Ontkean, Truman is a comforting presence on screen. So is Kyle MacLachlan’s FBI Agent Dale Cooper, who, while eccentric, is knowledgeable and unfazed by the strange goings on in the town.

It’s the rest of the cast that lends the episode it’s air of mystery. From the time Jack Nance’s character stumbles upon the dead body of young Laura Palmer on the lakeshore, Lynch takes care to set up each character introduction in such a way that it’s plausible they could be the suspect. In that way he can keep us on our toes throughout the first episode. People often call Lynch kooky and weird – I just think that he’s intelligent about cinema. He knows how images or even something as simple as camera angles influence the human mind. Lynch so quickly puts us under cinema’s spell, we forget this is actually supposed to be a TV show fairly quickly.

So what is my recommendation? Watch this, but also follow it up with the entire TV series. The pilot ends on too much of a cliffhanger and questions are only raised not answered. Do not watch the international edit of the pilot which includes extra scenes from later episodes that ruin the show’s surprises. B-

Next time I will be reviewing the Cameron Crowe romantic drama Say Anything… See you then!

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