Wild at Heart
Dir: David Lynch
Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.
Few films capably represent great novels. Every so often, a film will surface that at least mirrors some of the characters, images and emotion originally laid out in text by authors who never meant their stories to be altered. The film Wild At Heart is not entirely true to the book, although it is most definitely true to the emotions evoked by Barry Gifford’s 1990 novel Wild At Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula. Written for the screen and directed by David Lynch, Wild At Heart is the canvas on which Lynch plays out his penchant for the absurd while daring the viewer to say that the sex here is anything but powerful and mystical.
During the first few seconds of this film, we’re inflamed by the “heat.” The opening screen is solid black when the scratchy sound of an igniting match signals the appearance of a deep red flame that is magnified exposing the penetration of the wooden stem. This is going to be hot. Steamy hot. The small flame gushes to a roar and an enormous fire becomes totally out of control — a metaphor for what is about to unfold. Within the first minute, Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) is viciously beating a man to death.
Sailor and Lula Fortune (Laura Dern) are about to embark on a journey that parallels the tumult in one of Lynch’s favorite movies, The Wizard of Oz, references to which abound. Following Sailor’s jail term for self-defensive manslaughter, Lula is waiting at the gate in a convertible wiggling and writhing with excitement. They become determined to leave North Carolina for California with stops in New Orleans and Big Tuna, TX.
Dern’s performance is spot-on as a love-needy rape victim often appearing childlike and vulnerable, but never wavering from her passion for “Sail.” The flashbacks to her rape at 13 by her father’s business partner, her subsequent abortion, her father burning to death and her mother’s appearances as the Wicked Witch, are at the same time odd and understandable. Lula shares some of her history with Sailor as they head west and it is clear that she is troubled by trouble. At one point as they head down a highway, Lula becomes frustrated at all the horrific news on the radio. She pulls to stop, jumps out, and orders Sailor to find some music. In an instant the music roars while they dance, gyrate, and kick the dust as if they were in their own little hypnotic poppy field, far from any danger.
In one of his best roles, Cage is electric and forceful. He channels Elvis Presley in his tone, swagger and coolness. Instead of a skin-tight white jumpsuit, his character dons a snakeskin jacket that he is quick to declare at a nightclub, is “a symbol of individuality and my belief in personal freedom,” and then belts out “Love Me.” At the end of the film, Lula is wooed by “Love Me Tender,” all of which is not surprising given the fervor both Cage and Lynch have for The King.
Lula’s mother, Marietta (played by her actual mother Diane Ladd), is having her own fit; she wants Sailor out of the way because she believes that he witnessed her cackling as she killed her husband in a fire. So she arranges for both her current detective boyfriend, Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), and her former beau, Marcello Santos (J.E. Freeman), to find the couple, but directs only Santos to kill Sailor. When she learns that Santos plans to also off Johnnie, Marietta attempts to foil Santos. Ladd received an Oscar nomination for the fury she evoked as an unstable, controlling mother.
Like other Lynch films, the story amplifies the darkest, kinkiest, seediest sides of humankind giving the director a terrific opportunity to create psychopaths and absurdly grotesque carnival-like characters that dash in and out of the escape route of the highly passionate lovers. In addition to these aberrants, Isabella Rossallini (engaged to Lynch at the time) takes on the role of bright yellow-haired Perdita, Sailor’s former lover. Willem DeFoe is brilliant as Bobby Peru who hooks up with Sailor to rob a bank in Big Tuna. In one scene, Bobby threatens to rape Lula who tries to resist but her internal thermometer overheats. It turns out that psycho-Bobby has better sense than she, at least in this instance.
If you’re familiar with Lynch’s work you won’t be shocked by the gore and the absurdities. Wild At Heart is worth a second or third look because of the strong performances, cinematography, music and hot, hot, hot theme. As Lula says, “This whole world is wild at heart and weird on top.”