I had a first reaction to this film similar to many others: watched it right after the series, wanted some kind of continuation even though I knew it was a prequel, and was disappointed and turned-off by this excessive tale of events we "already knew about." I never hated it, but I couldn't fathom the high praise some gave.
Five years later, after a re-watch of the series, I have re-watched the film again twice now, and my opinion could not be more different. This is a masterpiece... a difficult film, to be sure, and on the shortlist for the most disturbing film I've ever seen, but I truly believe this is Lynch's greatest achievement. With all due respect to Blue Velvet and Lost Highway (and even The Straight Story, which I love), FWWM has an utterly visceral emotional punch to it that's unmatched in Lynch's work and virtually unmatched in all of cinema, as well. The film is not as visually rich as Lost Highway, but nor should it be; regardless, its cinematography is stunning in its fragmented, traumatic psychedelic delirium, the sense of self dissolving underneath enormous pressures external and internal.
The film is simply an embarrassment of riches: there is also the deranged night-jazz of the soundtrack, probably Badalamenti's single best work; and the astonishing performances of Lee and Wise who seem to bare their souls like few actors before or after them; and not to mention the beautiful, if initially off-putting to some, way the film inverts Twin Peaks, shows us it from a different view (not just because it's Laura's POV; there's a darker feel to the town, as if we're seeing it through some satanic prism, and the whole movie from Deer Meadow onward proceeds with this uniquely dark mood). The red room scenes are even more frightening than those of the show's incredible final episode, and Lynch seems to make a stab at fleshing out some kind of coherent mythology to all the spiritual/mystical dimensions at work; it remains abstract, as ever with him, but the key trope of electricity retains an uncanny power throughout the film.
I also love the way the opening prologue in Deer Meadow is almost a separate film -- though essentially the whole film feels of a piece, this first part, besides its telling of a different narrative, has a unique tone to it that's more or less dropped (for good reason) when we get to Laura. It's a bewildering tone: sarcastic, laconic, surreal, blackly comic and almost angry in its humor which may or may not be directed at "fans" of the show who just want "fan service," hot girls and quirky dialogue, and not a cinematically compelling, psychologically disturbing ride like they're about to get. Lynch is at his best here (and is even better in the second part): the way he subverts every possible audience expectation while still delivering a nightmarish descent into pure mystery is seamless. This first section shouldn't work, but it's absolutely hypnotic. Hap's diner and the Fat Trout trailer park are surely two of Lynch's eeriest locations.
And there are so many all-time great sequences in the second half: Laura's dream journey into the painting, the feverish Canada club scene, Bowie's unsettling cameo and the assorted spirits we see as he talks, Leland's rage and remembrances when confronted with the One-Armed Man's frantic attack at him in traffic. And so many more. But most of all, it is the ending which makes this so beautiful and moving and unforgettable for me. It's simply one of the most purely cathartic and genuinely tear-jerking moments in cinema that I know of, and every bit of its sentiment is wholly, wonderfully earned. This movie has stayed in my head ever since my opinion-changing re-watch a few weeks back, and after that second re-watch today it has earned its place in my personal pantheon of works of art that impart something deep and resonant and haunting. So, consider me a convert. Lynch has never been more purely, viscerally effective in his approach; only the first 40 minutes of Lost Highway compare -- as well as the whole of Blue Velvet, perhaps Lynch's most structurally and formally perfect work yet not quite on the intense emotional level of FWWM.