Lynchian Legacy and Family Matters in Top of the Lake, Stoker and Bates Motel

Many shows have tried...and recapture the spirit of "Laura Palmer."

Many people have tried…and failed…to recapture that spirit of Laura Palmer. But there will only ever be one Laura Palmer. And one Twin Peaks.

It’s hard to believe it’s been over 23 years now since Twin Peaks graced the small screen, but even though it aired for only a year and a half, its legacy can still be felt today on television and in film in works like Top of the Lake, Stoker and Bates Motel – though only ones of these, thanks to the amazing lead performance of Vera Farmiga in Bates Motel, hints at anything memorable.

Jane Campion's TOP OF THE LAKE attempts to be haunting, but comes up all wet.
Jane Campion’s TOP OF THE LAKE attempts to be haunting, but comes up all wet.

Currently on the Sundance Channel, the New Zealand set slow-boil mystery, Top of the Lake, borrows liberally from David Lynch’s signature series. Film auteur Jane Campion follows in Lynch’s footsteps by turning to television with this melancholy miniseries chronicling a Sydney detective (Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss, boldly against type) returning to her remote New Zealand home town (an eerie down under mirror of Lynch’s Pacific Northwest with its mountains, lakes and dark woods) to care for her cancer-stricken mother only to get sucked into the local mystery surrounding the disappearance of a pregnant twelve-year old who just so happens to be the illegitimate daughter of the town drug lord.

Coming from Campion, Top of the Lake features a strong feminist bent, though it’s clear Moss’ detective is cut from the same cloth as Clarice Starling and Agent Scully before her. The show adopts a tone and pacing similar to the problematic The Killing, though the setting is just exotic enough and the characters just strange enough (Peter Mullan’s drug lord is certainly unique, and Holly Hunter shows up as a defiantly disgruntled guru who sets up a damaged ladies’ commune on Mullan’s ancestral grounds) to keep you coming back for more. When you realize it’s only a six-episode run and you’ve already sat through three of those six hours, it’s easy to commit to seeing it through even though it lacks the giddy thrill of Twin Peak’s now classic six-episode first season. Ultimately it’s like a favorite old blanket turned damp and moldy. You can’t bring yourself to throw it out though you know it’s never going to bring you the comfort you desire.

Mia Wasikowska in Park Chan-wook's Stoker
Striking images abound in STOKER, but they mean nothing without any substance behind them.

Meanwhile, on the big screen, famed Korean director Chan-Wook Park makes his stateside debut with the neo-gothic melodrama/thriller Stoker. He brings plenty of panache to the proceedings, with interesting camera angles and playful staging of scenes, but the material (from a script by Wentworth Miller) is paper thin. After Father dies, his devilishly weird younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) shacks up with sexually repressed Mom (Nicole Kidman, icily wasted) and glum Daughter (Mia Wasikowska). The old “Uncle Charlie may be a killer!” bit is shamelessly ripped from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but without any of the depth. All of the characters are so seriously disturbed from the get-go that there is zero suspense in figuring out where this is headed. Like the best and the worst Brian De Palma flicks, every scene is filmed to within an inch of its life, and Park delivers the “big reveals” with a sledgehammer, using pounding music and shoddy quick edits to showcase the shocks which were brazenly foreshadowed with zero subtlety twenty minutes earlier. Thankfully, there are still some beautiful Lynch-by-way-of-Tim-Burton aesthetics and set designs to soak up, and the film moves at a brisk pace to keep you from thinking just how much better someone like David Lynch could’ve made this deranged family story. While Hitchcock was the aim, Lynch was brought most to mind – though neither master was faithfully captured, and what we’re left with is an empty shell of a film, a shattered Faberge egg.

Vera Farmiga at the BATES MOTEL standing in front of my lucky number 4.  Something tells me I'll put too many bets on both.
Vera Farmiga at the BATES MOTEL standing in front of my lucky number 4. Something tells me I’ll put too many bets on both.

And speaking of deranged families and known outcomes, voila – Bates Motel – the chronicle of a teenage Norman Bates and his loving mother Norma airing currently on A&E. Again, though the Hitchcock classic Psycho is the obvious impetus for this idea, the producers have been quite clear in all the press that Twin Peaks was an even bigger influence. Hence the creaky “trying-too-hard” pilot featured a distracting 1960’s meets the modern world aesthetic (meant to mirror Twin Peak’s uncanny 1950’s meets the early 1990’s vibe) that seemed forced, though you get used to it by the second episode which begins to build on the promise of the pilot’s “this small town has some dark secrets” theme – another Lynchian hallmark. The mystery isn’t necessarily how Norman ends up becoming…well…psycho…but what the heck is going on in this small town? Perhaps his fate is not only worthy of the nature vs. nurture debate…but also hints at the criminal being a product of their environment. Was he born that way? Did his Mom make him that way? Or did the town make him that way? Or was it a little bit of all of that, and beneath it all is there/was there some good in him?

The kicker here is they have to make you route for Norman and his mom. We know what eventually happens to them all too well, but they weren’t always like that…right? And maybe the dark secrets of the small town to which they moved and in which they opened their infamous motel weighed heavy on their already troubled souls. As Norman, Freddie Highmore is likable enough, though he’s shown hints of his hidden range and the depths of his relationship with his mother have yet to be fully revealed. His American accent is shaky and sometimes distracting. As Mom, the show has scored a major coup with Vera Farmiga. A lesser actress would’ve delved immediately into Mommy Dearest theatrics, but Farmiga shows both why she gets typecast as tortured mothers and why she has been cast as the smart-sexpot in films like The Departed and Up and the Air. The so far flimsy writing and presumed long arc of serialized television has allowed her to mold Norma Bates into her own and channel the best of both worlds. In the first two episodes she’s flipped the switches from domineering to affectionate, from demure to raging, from seductive to deranged…yet she never quite tips over the edge (unless you count that slip up in the pilot where she enjoys just a bit too much stabbing a dead rapist who was justly dispensed of moments earlier in self-defense). Farmiga, when the script fails her, uses her body language…her demonstrative arms, her twitchy and emotive face. Witness the scene where she flirts with the deputy (who looks disturbingly similar to her older bad-boy son played by Max Thieriot) at the coffee shop. Those looks…that body language…heck, I’d fall in love with her too. Farmiga makes it easy to see why everyone runs the risk of becoming obsessed with her…she’s the good girl and bad girl, angel and devil, virgin and whore all rolled into one tightly coiled bundle of agonizing seduction. Poor little Norman doesn’t stand a chance.

And while Bates Motel wrestles in the shadows of Twin Peaks and struggles to find a strong footing (it has promise…even if we do all know where it is headed), Lynch also never had the force of nature that is Vera Farmiga to play with on the small screen. She belongs to the new vanguard of maturing award-caliber film actresses who are finding meatier roles in this renaissance era of basic and pay cable TV badassery (like Laura Linney in The Big C, Jessica Lange in American Horror Story or Lynch muse Laura Dern in the underrated and criminally canceled Enlightenment). Which makes me think when it’s time for her to return to the big screen, Farmiga would be perfectly at home inside little Davey Lynch’s sick head, where like Laura Dern and Naomi Watts before her, he could reward and torture her to the best and worst of their shared abilities.

Too bad Lynch is too busy doing voice-overs for Seth McFarlane cartoons and opening hipster nightclubs in Paris rather than returning to the art of cinema.

Oh, David, when will you return to film? Vera and I need you. Meanwhile your shadow looms large over lesser stock.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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