David Lynch’s Wild at Heart at 30
David Lynch evokes a surreal world in Wild at Heart, a film brimming over with explicit sex, murder, rape, eccentric kitsch, and sleaze. There is some rather horrifyingly violence to be found here, beginning with the opening scene where a man is beaten to death, to a moment later in the film where a shotgun to the head sends someone’s brains splattered across the frame. Based on the novel by Barry Gifford, and the winner of the Palme d’Or, Wild at Heart is indeed a perverse and over-the-top Southern Gothic thriller best described as a cross between Natural Born Killers and Badlands. Like most of his films, Wild at Heart draws heated responses from viewers, and given how weird, wild and excessive it is, Heart seems more prone to provoke a reaction than embedding a deeper mystery. Regardless if you end up liking it or not, this is one movie that will have you talking for days.
Here, the director is working with pulp conventions, tangential metaphors, and interwoven into the cross-country adventure are numerous references to Lynch’s favourite movie, The Wizard of Oz. Appearing is both the Wicked Witch and the Good, along with a crystal ball, ruby slippers, and other strange characters immersed in stranger fantasies. It’s a road movie about a pair of seemingly doomed young Southern lovers named Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) and a hot-tempered, ex-con named Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage), on the run from Cape Fear, North Carolina to Big Tuna, Texas. Luna’s wicked witch of a mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd), fearing Sailor’s knowledge of her plot to murder her husband, arranges with a mobster (J. E. Freeman) to have Sailor killed. Sent to track them down is “black angel” Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) and Perdita Durango (Isabella Rossellini).
With Wild at Heart, Lynch presents an adult fairy tale, brought to life with vivid imagery, outrageous performances, and the sweet sounds of Nicolas Cage singing the songs of Elvis Presley. Instead of repeating the conventions of his previous feature, the director replaces Blue Velvet’s cool palette with one of hot oranges, burning reds, and bright yellows. Using a special lens, Lynch is able to change the colours on the spur of the moment – often sampling the colours of the rainbow, particularly during the scenes of lovemaking. The effect works well against a relationship of uncontrolled passion, as opposed to the cold blue hues heightening Velvet’s uneasy portrayal of sexuality. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes and David Lynch construct a bizarre landscape, and the kinetic camerawork and editing convey a world spiraling out of control; meanwhile, the reoccurring use of fire sends smoke signals throughout. In addition, Lynch’s typically meticulous sound design, along with the hip rock tunes and Angelo Badalamenti’s soulful score, help make Wild at Heart Lynch’s best sounding film.
Wild at Heart often feels like a forerunner to Natural Born Killers. It is a movie that explores the underbelly of American society and finding love in hell. Sex is central to Wild at Heart in the same way it was in Blue Velvet, and like Blue Velvet, the sudden ideal ending of perfect happiness is drenched in irony and sincerity. Wild at Heart is also remarkable for its blend of divergent tones and styles and the way it seamlessly weaves between violence, dark comedy, and perversion. David Lynch doesn’t tell stories as much as he shows them and Wild at Heart is basically a series of unforgettable vignettes – particularly one sequence in which Sailor and Lula come upon the scene of a highway-car-wreck, on the way to Big Tuna, and find Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks) wandering in a bloody daze by the side of the road. Lynch’s ability to disturb through carefully contrived atmosphere is unparalleled; what begins as a disturbing sequence, quickly shifts into the film’s most deeply moving scene. But of all the seemingly unrelated sequences, probably the most bizarre belongs to Crispin Glover as Dell. A cousin to Luna, this lunatic loves to shove cockroaches in his underwear and believes aliens with black gloves are out to abduct him. And let us not forget the scene in which Luna and Sailor meet the psychotic ex-marine named Bobby Peru, played by Willem Dafoe, who is outfitted with rotten teeth and a pencil mustache ala John Waters. The scene in which Peru terrorizes Lula in her motel room is one of the finest scenes of any Lynch outing, and the one true moment when Wild at Heart attains that quintessentially Lynch-like quality we all love. Lula’s fear and disgust melt into confusion and desire, and slowly, as Bobby whispers his vulgar request, the scene which begins with uncomfortable laughter shifts to terrifying madness and ends with an unsettling eroticism. Peru is without apology – his every action is a pure expression of his twisted desires – and Dafoe delivers one of the sleaziest performances of any David Lynch film.
The cast is one of the biggest ensembles for any Lynch film. The rogue gallery includes W. Morgan Sheppard as Mr. Reindeer, a mysterious crime lord who sits on a toilet sipping tea while surrounded by topless women; Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks), who floats down in a magical bubble at the picture’s end and Diane Ladd (Laura Dern’s mother in real life) who flexes her wild side, smearing her face with blood-red lipstick and crawling across the living room floor like a possessed feline in an amazingly over-the-top performance for which she was surprisingly nominated for an Academy Award (but lost to Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost). In addition, Grace Zabriskie appears as a member of the trio of deranged assassins — sporting a clubfoot, she and her pals kidnap Harry Dean Stanton’s Johnnie Farragut and take him Buffalo hunting in a scene that had test audiences walking out, leaving Lynch no choice but to leave some of it on the cutting room floor. Also appearing are John Lurie, Freddie Jones, Scott Coffey, Sherilyn Fenn, David Patrick Kelly, and Jack Nance, most of whom were pulled from David Lynch’s then-active TV series, Twin Peaks.
The movie, however, belongs to Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage who have undeniable chemistry. In one roadside scene, Laura Dern and a wildly roundhouse-kicking Nicolas Cage begin dancing impromptu to a heavy metal thrash song on the radio, but when the camera cranes back revealing the sunset on the horizon, the soundtrack fades into classical music, and so does their dance. As the two embrace, it becomes clear this is the quintessential scene of the entire film. Cage is always best when his role requires him to play over-the-top, and here the actor doesn’t hold back. The innocent-like Sailor isn’t a good man, but one can’t deny his love for Luna. Smoking two cigarettes at a time, wearing a snakeskin jacket, and doing a self-conscious Elvis impersonation, Cage gives his all to the lead role. But it is Dern who steals the spotlight as Lula Fortune, a 20-year-old gum-popping Southern sexpot and the heart of the film. Laura Dern struts her sexiness – and this is one of the best pieces of acting she has done. If there is ever a reason to watch Wild At Heart, it is for her performance alone.
- Ricky D