David Lynch proves to be an actor’s dream, able to pull out incredible performances from his cast.
It’s 2017, Donald Trump is President, Twin Peaks is back on the air, and Jim Belushi is in it delivering one of the best comedic performances in TV history. These are the times we live in. These recaps have often focused on time’s passage. David Lynch and Mark Frost have foregrounded it, taking the metatextual and making it text. Twin Peaks: The Return exists as commentary on itself—self-reflexivity has burrowed so deep into the show’s ethos that it’s occasionally tricky to separate sincerity from parody. The mistake is imagining any separation between the two, and Lynch proves this in the way he directs his actors.
In the century-plus history of film and television, the dominant approach to acting has evolved steadily, and always toward naturalism, always naturalism. Directors in the late-1920s subdued the pantomime of silent cinema performances into something more felt, more real. Directors of the 1950s began putting method actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando on-screen, creating marvelous dissonance between actor and audience expectation in a melodramatic frame. By the 1980s, those performances would look to most as stodgy and dated. Today they’d be downright theatrical. This development in screen acting has occurred in concert with technological improvements. Film became sharper, more real looking. Visual effects became more complex, and often seamless. Those old performances stand within an understood visual palette. A film looks a certain way based on age, so the acting style follows.
David Lynch has bucked the realism trend from the beginning. His influences span decades, and translate them into modernity, he lets them exist as they were, clashing against each other. The original Twin Peaks mashed together late-1980s procedural television with 1970s soap opera and 1950s melodrama and sci-fi. Twin Peaks: The Return updates things, bringing the series into the modern, expansive, digital world of prestige television. And still, Lynch’s affinity for the unadulterated old remain. Look no further than the visual effects in the series, which even when using CGI more often resemble 1950s sci-fi film effects as filtered through a 1990s Windows screensaver. But where Lynch’s indulgence is more evident is in the show’s performances.
David Lynch actors have always brought it all. They go overboard, amping up the intensity and surface emotion, as though channeling the styles of decades long past. Such overt stylization in performance was noticeable in the original Twin Peaks, but here, set against the sharpness of digital video, it’s even more extreme. Not every actor in the show pulls it off, or even tries. Some give it a go, but don’t get far, like Amanda Seyfried. Some milk the opportunity for gold, like Michael Cera’s cameo as Wally Brando.
Then there are the real heroes. The actors who get it. Those of the original cast, most obviously, but also some new faces. Laura Dern’s stern, own-the-room demeanor is electric, and not unexpected given her history with Lynch. The same is true of Naomi Watts’s wide-eyed housewife. But even newbies to Lynch’s work bring it all. Matthew Lillard’s horrified, angry, confused face is totally out there, and probably his best performance since Scream.
Then there’s Jim Belushi, until now one of the least funny individuals who ever tried to convince us otherwise. But maybe we were all very wrong. Maybe Belushi has always been great. Maybe he just hasn’t been given the opportunity to shine the way he always knew he could. I don’t know how it’s happened, but Jim Belushi is extraordinary. In the space of two episodes he’s show an amazing talent for wild, broadly physical expressions. It’s a pleasure to watch any scene of his, staring at his face, seeing it transform dramatically from one moment to the next, always pausing for a moment to land in the most hilarious contorsion for a given line or reaction. Belushi’s gift for pantomime is glorious, and apparently untapped for years—until Lynch let him loose on an unsuspecting audience.
Lynch’s generosity toward his actors is also apparent, and with none more so than Dana Ashbrook, whose bug-eyed Bobby Briggs has always been one of the more divisive characters from the original series. But Ashbrook has come back into the new, mature Briggs with a unique wisdom. His performance style hasn’t changed much—he’s still bug-eyed, and still jumpy quick to strong, elevated reaction. Only now there’s a weight there, you can see it behind the eyes, and in the creases in his skin. He’s a changed person, clearly, but as he sees Shelly run off to kiss another man, a gulf of 25 years experience is evident in his slowly reddening eyes. Of course, the scene quickly changes into something more hilariously nightmarish, for all the weirdness Lynch throws at us—gun-toting kids, honking horns, yelling women, vomiting girls—Ashbrook’s face is our ground. His confusion and terror aren’t empty horror film reactions, but genuine emotional conditions. In a practically motionless calm, Ashbrook displays a horrified weariness with the world, with what one person on Twitter described as, “all we need to know about David Lynch’s view of America in 2017.”
These are performances you can’t see anywhere else. No other filmmaker or TV producer is willing to take a chance on the potential artifice of it all. It’s not real enough for 2017. Lynch understands that “real” is what you make of it. These performances, when they work, truly work. Even his own performance is a masterclass in comic timing and delivery. The way Lynch says “he’s dead” might be one of the funniest things I’ve seen in weeks. It’s pure pleasure, the same as the kind that snaps into focus for a moment as Dougie chows down on a cherry pie and is nudged to say “damn good” and when he does it’s Agent Cooper’s voice coming through. MacLachlan, as always, the hero of the show, bringing to us one of the most carefully calibrated yet totally out there performances to grace television screens maybe ever. The character is hilarious, verging on parody, but never a joke. Twin Peaks is too sincere for any of that.