Wild At Heart (1990)
Directed by David Lynch
Produced by Steve Golin, Michael Kuhn, Month Montgomery, Sigurjon Sighvatsson
Screenplay by David Lynch, based on the novel by Barry Gifford
Cinematography by Frederick Elmes
Edited by Duwayne Dunham
Casting by Johanna Ray
Music by Angelo Badalamenti
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Propaganda Films
Universal Pictures UK Blu-ray
The David Lynch Project Part VI
While my friend K and I have been working on our David Lynch project, it seems as if each film is preparing us for the next one. K and I watched Blue Velvet back in April and after nearly a six-month hiatus, we’re back. It’s never a good idea to try to label a David Lynch film as any one thing, but if you were to call Blue Velvet a noir mystery (two things), I think you’d have to call Wild At Heart a romantic fantasy. Or a romantic crime fantasy. Or a romantic crime fantasy thriller. Or…
Of course no labels can adequately convey what Lynch is doing with this film, which Roger Ebert describes as “lurid melodrama, soap opera, exploitation, put-on and self-satire,” all of which is pretty much on-target. Wild At Heart could be thought of as an extension of Blue Velvet: at its core, Wild At Heart is about a relationship (or relationships, perhaps), set not within the confines of a small town, as with Blue Velvet, but in the wide open vastness of a road picture. The darker side of life in Blue Velvet is just as prevalent in Wild At Heart, and with more room to breathe. Romance in hell can happen anywhere.
The gist of the story is fairly straightforward: Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) has just been released from prison. After his lover Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) picks him up, they decide to drive as far away from Lula’s controlling mother Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real-life mother, above right) as possible. But Marietta not only hates Sailor, but hates that her daughter loves him. The only possible, honorable thing for Marietta to do is to hire a detective (Harry Dean Stanton, above left) to find Lula. And while she’s at it, maybe she could hire someone else to make sure Sailor sails off to the everafter, perhaps someone like the merciless Marcelles Santos (J.E. Freeman), a man who seems to have as many lowlife assassins in his pocket as a kid has action figures.
After reading Lynch on Lynch, a series of interviews with the director by Chris Rodley, you become convinced that Lynch is not above taking the occassional excursion away from the script and imagining, “What if this happened to the characters right here?” The problem (and I’m not sure you can really call it a “problem”) is that these excursions can cause the film to lose focus. On the other hand, they might constitute moments of inspired genius. It’s possible they could do both.
Recognizing this, it’s neither fair nor unfair to call Wild At Heart uneven. The film shifts often between romantic road picture to comedy to neo noir to violent crime flick, and somehow, it works, or at least it works for some audiences. Lynch claims that 80 people walked out of the theater at the first test screening and 100 at the second, yet the film won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival. (Lynch’s work has always been more lauded in Europe than in America.)
As we saw in Blue Velvet, Lynch is fascinated with nostalgia, presenting itself primarily in having Nicolas Cage deliver his lines with a passable Elvis imitation, Dern’s role reminding us of Marilyn Monroe, and scattered references to The Wizard of Oz. Lynch’s films always include some interesting supporting characters and Wild At Heart provides us with the pathetically determined detective Johnny Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) and the repulsive snakelike Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe, above right). You’ll also see other Lynch favorites such as Isabella Rossellini, Grace Zabriskie, Sherilyn Fenn (below), Freddie Jones, and quite possibly Lynch’s all-time favorite and friend Jack Nance.
As in many Lynch films, you’re never quite sure where you are tonally or how you’re supposed to feel. It’s sort of like throwing darts at a map of the world. There’s the aftermath of a car accident in the desert that’s one of the most harrowing scenes in Lynch’s output, then there’s a “stop-everything-while-I-sing-an-Elvis-number” at a club that’s totally gonzo. Dark comedy also runs rampant, often blending with violence that might repulse us in any other context. Yet in other places, you can’t help but laugh at some of the dialogue, such as when Sailor tells Lula how long he’s been smoking. The Wizard of Oz stuff will be too much for some, not enough for others, but this is Lynch, who – after the disastrous Dune – gets final cut, for good or for ill. He’s the boss.
Wild At Heart appears more-or-less between the first and second seasons of the television show Twin Peaks (1990-1991). Keith Phipps, writing for The A.V. Club, discusses some of the interesting similarities between the two projects. I can also recommend an excellent review of Wild At Heart by Scott Tobias. Like most of Lynch’s films, Wild At Heart demands more than one viewing, but for fans of the director, that shouldn’t be any problem.