“Man, I had a boner with a capital ‘O.'”
“And this here’s a story with a lesson about bad ideas.”
—Lula Pace Fortune
“Don’t turn away from love, Sailor.”
—Glinda the Good Witch
Wild at Heart is one of David Lynch’s more maligned films. Roger Ebert hated it to the point of indignation (https://www.google.com/amp/www.rogerebert.com/reviews/amp/wild-at-heart-1990). Vincent Canby seemed perplexed—I can’t tell whether he was bored, annoyed, or just flummoxed (http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C0CE5D7123EF934A2575BC0A966958260). Jonathan Rosenbaum called it “appalling,” “inept,” and “debasing” (https://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1990/08/bad-ideas/). A host of other critics rolled their eyes and sighed, dismissing it, I suppose, as a violent and exploitive piece of shock fluff.
I never saw Wild at Heart until now. Some of the points raised by its detractors are valid, but I still liked it for the same things that made them hate it. Erratic, vulgar, and really sweet, it’s offputting yet compelling and—surprise!—it has a happy ending.
An atypically straightforward narrative for a Lynch project, Wild at Heart is a decidedly deranged, bloody road movie/romance/thriller based on Barry Gifford’s novel of the same name. Upon his release from a North Carolina prison after serving time for murder—never mind that it was self-defense—Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) exits the jailhouse to find his lover, Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern), waiting for him outside in the sunlight with his snakeskin jacket, the symbol of his individuality and his belief in personal freedom. They spend some time catching up in a motel room and at a speedmetal concert before they decide to blow off his parole and take off for California.
Meanwhile, Lula’s mother, Southern lady Marietta (Diane Ladd), is making plans of her own—and they involve her private detective boyfriend (Harry Dean Stanton) and a hit man (J. E. Freeman) who’s got Sailor as his target. A bad omen detours the starcrossed lovers to Big Tuna, Texas, where they unwittingly plant themselves smack in the middle of a bad situation that looks to be turning deadly fast.
OK, I’ve seen versions of this same story before. The plot is familiar and for the most part implausible—not to mention really, really thin at times. Lynch goes overboard with his depiction of sex, violence, and gore—even though they all have a place here. None of this matters, though, because the characters, which are both the focus and the strength of the film, are fantastic.
As usual, the casting is stellar. Cage is at his best here, working that edgy deadpan earnest manic thing he did so well in his early films. Dern is flawless as a sweet Southern girl who’s found her place with bad boy Sailor, everyone else be damned. Willem Dafoe is super creepy as hayseed bad guy Bobby Peru—those teeth! Above them all, however, is Ladd, who’s fucking fabulous even with her face covered in red lipstick. She’s vengeful at times, remorseful at others; but all the while, a perfect lady. She shines here. There’s a reason she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1991). This film works because the actors give it their all.
Wild at Heart is loaded with Lynch’s trademark what-the-fuck weirdness—a man at a bar quacking like a duck (you read that correctly) and cousin “Jingle Dell” (Crispin Glover) sitting on the floor in the bathroom screaming for Christmas or standing at the counter in the dark making a hundred sandwiches for lunch are bizarre moments even by Lynchian standards. There’s a lot more to it, though. I love the theme of finding a happy place in the midst of horrible things happening. I love all the references to various staples of Americana—cowboys, cars, highways, Elvis Presley, and my favorite, The Wizard of Oz. I love that underneath it all is a touching love story that we can all relate to.
What I find most interesting, though, is that so many things about Wild at Heart scream Quentin Tarantino, yet he had nothing to do with it. In fact, it came out two years before Tarantino’s first major film, Reservoir Dogs. I never thought of David Lynch as an influence on him, but Wild at Heart makes me wonder.
Side note: Wild at Heart is a rated R movie. For the screening I attended, however, I was lucky enough to catch an unreleased rated X version. The X rating was no doubt due to the graphic violence—it wasn’t the sex scenes. The print was in bad shape, all scratchy and beat up, but it was totally worth it to see an X-rated Lynch film.
With W. Morgan Sheppard, Grace Zabriskie, Isabella Rossellini, Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee
Production: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Propaganda Films
Distribution: Manifesto Film Sales, The Samuel Goldwyn Company (USA), Palace Pictures (UK), Bac Films (France), Cineplex Odeon Films (Canada), Finnkino (Finland), Hoyts Distribution (Australia), Háskólabíó (Iceland), Meteor Film Productions (Netherlands), Sandrew Film & Teater (Sweden), Solopan (Poland)
Rated X (alternate version)
(Music Box) B
David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective