Wild At Heart
Director: David Lynch.
Screenplay: David Lynch.
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe, Diane Ladd, Harry Dean Stanton, J.E. Freeman, Crispin Glover, Isabella Rossellini, Calvin Lockhart, Grace Zabriskie, W. Morgan Sheppard, Sherilyn Fenn, Marvin Kaplan, David Patrick Kelly, Freddie Jones, Jack Nance, John Lurie, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Gregg Dandridge, Frank Collison, Scott Coffey, Frances Bay, Sheryl Lee.
“Speaking of Jack, One eyed Jack’s yearning to go a peeping in a seafood store”
Around the time of Wild At Heart‘s release, David Lynch was already enjoying an abundance of praise for his cult TV show Twin Peaks. However, this time he was working on an adaptation from another writer’s work. The last time Lynch attempted to do this (Frank Herbert’s Dune), the results were catastrophic. That said, Barry Gifford’s source material is far more suited to Lynch’s style. This may be a more linear film than most Lynch fans expected but it’s one of his more accessible offerings while still maintaining his talent for the weird and the offbeat.
Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Fortune (Laura Dern) are young lovers fleeing south from Lula’s vengeful mother Marietta (Diane Ladd). In a fit of rage, Marietta is determined to prevent the two from seeing each other and employs the services of a P.I and hitmen to track them down.
Some may (and do) claim that this is not Lynch’s strongest output. I’m not about to split hairs on that particular opinion but there are some obvious reasons for this. For a start, Lynch already had some solid films on his resumé and, as mentioned earlier, the original material is not his own. He also attempts something a bit different from his norm. For the most part, he abandons his surrealist, claustrophobic narrative for something more open and approachable: a road movie with numerous different characters and motivations.
It isn’t entirely what we have come to know and love about a Lynchian experience but he still manages to imbue it with some colourful dialogue and showcases his idiosyncratic knack for oddball characters which provides great fodder for an eclectic cast of strong performers: A lot has been said about the downfall of Nicolas Cage’s career in recent times but it can often be overlooked just how good he was in the 80’s and 90’s and he’s rarely been better than he is here. It’s a very energetic performance and he plays it at just the right note whereby he’s both funny and dangerous – not to mention the Elvis impersonations and the love he has for his snake skin jacket which “represents his individuality and belief in personal freedom“; Laura Dern is no less his equal as she captures the hyperactivity and naiveté of an infatuated teenager – even if she is slightly too old for a teenage role; Diane Ladd is simply wonderful (and deservedly Oscar nominated) as the bitter and spiteful Marietta that will stop at nothing in achieving her vengeance and retribution on Sailor. It’s a film filled with eccentric characters and the supporting ones are just as memorable: there’s cousin Dell (Crispin Glover) who has a thing about Christmas and putting cockroaches in his underpants; Marcelles Santos (J.E. Freeman) the menacing hitman with a wicked sense of humour and real threatening conviction and Private Detective Johnny Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) as the gentle heart of the film. You could also mention a brief and suitably odd Jack Nance or Sherilyn Fenn as a random car crash victim who deliriously worries about her purse while picking at the fatal wound in her head. It doesn’t even have to be a prominent character, sometimes it’s just a name; Uncle Pooch, Bob Ray Lemon and the enigmatic criminal kingpin, Mr. Reindeer – a character that wouldn’t look out of place in a Quentin Tarantino story. There’s so many vibrant characters that it’s difficult to name them all but the best of the sordid bunch is when the lovebirds reach Texas and arrive at the town of Big Tuna and meet Willem Dafoe’s incredibly creepy, Bobby Peru. If there’s any comparison to the dark characters that inhabit Lynch’s world then Blue Velvet‘s Frank Booth is probably the only one that can compare to Peru and his downright nastiness.
The narrative itself is a dark and twisted delight; Lynch has always claimed the film to be a love story between Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe as they travel through the land of Oz and Lynch makes constant references throughout the film. Some work and others don’t but there’s no denying his inventive approach to the material.
As much as this is a more linear and more approachable David Lynch movie, that’s almost what makes it a lesser effort. It’s his dream-like ability to work within realms that’s missing. That’s not to say that Wild At Heart doesn’t have touches of this but it’s not as prominent as it often is. That said, it still has the requisite amount of bizarre to please Lynch enthusiasts. Those who also enjoy a crime yarn with colourful characters will find plenty to admire too. In fact, I’ve mentioned Tarantino earlier for good reason. There’s no doubt that Tarantino has been influenced by this particular film in his lovers-on-the-lam, screenwriting endeavours of True Romance and Natural Born Killers and the ability to make such inconsequential supporting characters so memorable. He even, personally, admitted that the film was a big influence on the style and tone of Pulp Fiction.
Ultimately, the problem that makes Wild At Heart feel less like a Lynch film, though, is because he’s constantly on the move. He rarely gets a chance to remain static and create an ambience within a room. This is what Lynch is a master at but having to focus on so many characters and so many locations doesn’t provide him with that opportunity. That said, his deranged approach to characterisation is ever present and Wild At Heart contains some of the best.
Like the odd love child of Tarantino and The Coen Bros. It matches the violence of the former and the zaniness of the latter and comes out feeling just as fresh and original as their work often does. It may be one of Lynch’s more coherent films but it still has flashes of his dreamlike quality, peppered with strange, outlandish characters and events. Regardless of it being more linear, though, it’s still a depiction of the off-beat and depraved underbelly of America, that no-one can do quite like Lynch.
Trivia: The film was completed one day before it debuted at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival in the 2,400-seat Grand Auditorium. After the screening, it received “wild cheering” from the audience. When Jury President Bernardo Bertolucci announced Wild at Heart as the Palme d’Or winner at the awards ceremony, the boos almost drowned out the cheers with film critic Roger Ebert leading the vocal detractors. Barry Gifford remembers that there was a prevailing mood that the media was hoping Lynch would fail.