Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: David Lynch based on the novel by Barry Gifford.
Starring: Nicolas Cage (Sailor Ripley), Laura Dern (Lula Fortune), Willem Dafoe (Bobby Peru), J.E. Freeman (Marcelles Santos), Crispin Glover (Dell), Diane Ladd (Marietta Fortune), Calvin Lockhart (Reggie), Isabella Rossellini (Perdita Durango), Harry Dean Stanton (Johnnie Farragut), Grace Zabriskie (Juana Durango), Sherilyn Fenn (Girl in Accident), William Morgan Sheppard (Mr. Reindeer), David Patrick Kelly (Dropshadow), Freddie Jones (George Kovich), John Lurie (Sparky), Jack Nance (00 Spool), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Buddy), Sheryl Lee (Good Witch).
David Lynch doesn’t make love stories. The central couple in Eraserhead doesn’t last to the halfway point, the couple in Blue Velvet may end up together, but it’s based on them ignoring reality, everyone in Twin Peaks seems to be cheating on each other, or else or miserable, Mulholland Dr. plays like it could be a love story, until the truth comes out in the end. Needless to say, love doesn’t usually end well in David Lynch’s world – where nothing usually ends well. The exception is his controversial, Palme D’or winning Wild at Heart from 1990 – which really is a David Lynch love story. The central couple, Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) love each other before the movie begins, and no matter what is thrown at them along the way – and A LOT is thrown at them – they stay in love. This fact, despite how much violence and human depravity on display in the film, may well make Wild at Heart Lynch’s most optimistic film outside of The Elephant Man.
Wild at Heart starts with a scene of shocking violence – when Sailor is confronted – in front of Lula, her mother Marietta (Diane Ladd) and all of her friends outside of a fancy party. The man tells Sailor Marietta has paid him to kill Sailor – and whips out a knife, at which point Sailor bashes his head in – quite literally – killing him and ending up in jail (not for long though – he must have got manslaughter). When he gets out, Lula is there waiting for him – and the two take-off on across country road trip to California. Marietta, a wealthy woman with criminal connections, will do anything to track them down and kill Sailor, not only because she doesn’t want Lula dating him, but because he may know a dark secret she has been hiding. She sends Johnnie Farragut (Henry Dean Stanton), a P.I. who is in love with Marietta to track them down, but her other lover, Marcelles Santos (J.E. Freeman), who she has been working with on various criminal enterprises, convinces Marietta to send professional killers after Sailor – and poor Johnny as well. The deranged Juana Durango (Grace Zabriskie) and her two boy toys get Johnny, while the even more demented Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), teams up with Perdita Durango (Isabella Rossellini) to get Sailor. Violence ensues.
Wild at Heart is an odd movie in many ways. It isn’t totally unlike Blue Velvet, in that Sailor and Lula are innocent (relatively, considering everyone else in the movie) characters who are dropped into a world of human depravity. The rest of the characters in the movie are insane, violent, perverted fiends, but Sailor, while he can be violent, only does so when forced. They are also in love – a foreign concept to the rest of the people in the movie, who use each other like sexual playthings, and nothing else. Lynch lingers on Sailor and Lula having sex often in the movie – but it’s rough, it’s also passionate, erotic, and mutually satisfying – something Lynch makes clear, as his camera is more likely to linger on Dern during sex than Cage, which isn’t uncommon, but the pleasure he shows is. He also spends equally, if not more, time on their chats while still in post-sex bliss, revealing their characters. These are challenging roles for Cage and Dern because in many ways they are both playing versions of icons – he, Elvis, her, Marilyn Monroe –and they have to effect certain speech patterns and mannerisms to get those parts right, while making the two of them feel at least somewhat real. Dern has always done her best work with Lynch – and this is one of her better performances – and the film acts as a reminder of just how good Cage can be when working with a great director in a great role.
The rest of the cast is demented, insane – and a hell of a lot of fun. Lynch knew, I think, he couldn’t top Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth, so he spread the insanity out this time. Amazingly, Diane Ladd received an Oscar nomination for her performance here – I say amazingly, not because she isn’t great in the role, but because it’s such an over-the-top role in such an over-the-top movie, I am amazed the Academy actually sat through it. The other supporting performance to truly highlight is Willem Dafoe’s as Bobby Peru – which may be the most grotesque Dafoe has ever been on screen, and that’s saying something.
Wild at Heart though is not the masterpiece that Blue Velvet was. It’s a movie with an odd tone, that doesn’t quite manage the shifts in tone as well as Blue Velvet did. Roger Ebert complained about the scene where a bank guard got his hand shot off, and then a dog runs away with it, and although I don’t necessarily agree, I see where he’s coming from. The shifts in tone felt more natural in Blue Velvet, whereas here they are a little uneasy. Lynch also grafts on a strange Wizard of Oz parallel to the movie that is really, very awkward at times. The film also feels like the material wants to be a little bit looser – wants to explore a few more side alleys, like the amazingly strange Jingle Dell sequence with a great Crispin Glover – but Lynch won’t quite let it off its leash.
Still, Wild at Heart is a memorable movie if nothing else – and one I keep returning to. I know why some booed it at Cannes when it premiered – and booed it again when it won the Palme D’Or, which really does feel more like a jury giving a prize to a filmmaker they love rather than a prize for the film itself (although looking at the competition that year, it was a weak lineup). And I understand where viewers mainly stayed away, and it so split critics, and initially got a NC-17 rating. It is a bizarre and violent film, with a ton of sex. But it’s also a fascinating film – one that rewards repeat viewings that allow you to delve deeper into this world. It’s more uneven that Lynch’s best films – but it’s just as memorable.