REVIEW REVISITED: Wild at Heart (1990)

This is a reprint of my review which was first published on Three Men on a Blog in December 2011, with a number of minor revisions. My original review can be found here. 

Wild at Heart (USA, 1990)
Directed by David Lynch
Starring Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Willem Dafoe

You know you've arrived as a filmmaker when a bespoke adjective is created to describe your work - Gilliam-esque, Kubrickian, Lynchian and so on. But with this honour comes the danger of said film-maker producing films which consist of familiar images or elements, without the narrative or thematic cohesion which earned them the label in the first place.
Wild of Heart is only partially guilty of this, not being one of David Lynch's strongest or most cohesive efforts. Although its thematic unity is never in doubt, and its central narrative is easy enough to follow, it ultimately amounts to a series of strange and memorable moments which punctuate his loose reworking of a road movie. While episodic and baggy, it contains moments of Lynch at his absolute best, and even at its worst is nothing short of unforgettable.
Just as Lynch saw Eraserhead as his version of The Philadelphia Story, so Wild at Heart could be described as his take on The Wizard of Oz. Lynch has acknowledged its influence throughout his career, and his most recent works, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, have incorporated visual or narrative references to it throughout. But whereas these films are Lynch works with little nods to Oz thrown in, this is a full-on marriage of the two, as Lynch takes all the touchstones of L. Frank Baum's story, adds plenty of violence, cranks up the creepiness (if that were possible), and makes the central relationship more emotionally raw and raunchy.
The parallels between the two works are candid from the outset. Lula is Dorothy, thrust into a strange world that is "wild at heart and weird on top", and sustained only by Sailor's companionship and the promise of returning to something she can recognise. Sailor in this interpretation is an amalgam of Dorothy's companions: he's physically strong but an emotional coward, lacks brains, and his capacity for love doesn't extend much beyond devotion. Alternatively, these two represent different aspects of Dorothy, contrasting Sailor's self-confidence with Lula's sensitivity.
The Oz references extend far beyond the permutations of the central characters. Diane Ladd makes a convincing Wicked Witch of the West, following Lula's/ Dorothy's every move, cursing the fact that the couple are still together and getting further towards their goal in spite of all her schemes. The long road to California doubles for the yellow brick road, and the car crash featuring Twin Peaks star Sherilyn Fenn could be a nod to the poppy fields, which disorientate and threaten to destroy the heroes. Fenn later turns up as a literal manifestation of the Good Witch Glinda, reflecting that the couple's perseverance and desire to help her were both the right choices to make.
Lynch described the central theme of Wild at Heart as "finding love in Hell". He creates a dark, violent world all around the characters, populated by car crashes, robberies, betrayal, infidelity, sex, violence and various undignified deaths. With all the supporting characters having at least one foot rooted in the grotesque, Sailor and Lula become our natural focus, as people with at least part of their sanity intact who desire more than anything to escape, by whatever means.
This atmosphere of aggression and theme of being trapped is reinforced by Lynch's choice of music. Working with Angelo Badalamenti, who has scored all his work since Blue Velvet, Lynch blends the laid-back 1950s sound of Chris Isaaks brilliant 'Wicked Game' to some very aggressive speed metal, the latter of which foreshadows his work with Marilyn Manson on Lost Highway. It's an oddly effective blend, depicting the violence and possible redemption which confront the characters.
Music plays a key role in demonstrating the mental conflict of the central characters. In one great scene, Lula tunes through all the radio stations in the car, hearing nothing but bad news. She slams on the brakes, gets out of the car, and starts screaming that she'll go mad unless she hears music. Sailor finds some hard rock, starts screaming too, and they share an impromptu mosh in the middle of the desert, ending with a passionate embrace. There are big nods to the Elvis back catalogue, with Sailor serenading Lula with 'Love Me' in the club, and finally cementing his love with 'Love Me Tender' during the credits.
Although these scenes in and of themselves are well-assembled and great fun, they do hint at the big central problem with Wild at Heart. There are so manystrange little bits floating around the central story that they never quite integrate into a seamless, disorientating whole. Lynch's symbolic imagery and manipulation of colour don't gel quite so naturally with the story and characters as such techniques did in Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive.
The Blue Velvet comparison is the more illuminating, particularly with regard to the amount of time the ideas of the film had to gestate. Lynch had the story and themes of Blue Velvet all worked out in his head before Dune, so that even when he was forced to shoot quickly due to lack of money, he knew how to shoot the robins speech, or the zoom down to the cockroaches, in a way which was seamlessly integral to the story. 
Wild at Heart, on the other hand, was rushed into production following the collapse of Dino DeLaurentiis' production company, which delayed progress on both Twin Peaks and Lynch's pet project, Ronnie Rocket. He was given Barry Gifford's novel by friend Monty Montgomery with a view to producing it, and only had two months between buying the rights and beginning to shoot. It is no surprise therefore that the script of Wild at Heart doesn't entirely click; it is, in Lynch's words, "a compilation of ideas."
This disjointed feel has the side effect of taking us out of the story during many of the weirder moments. The cameos by Jack Nance or Crispin Glover may induce a laugh, but the reaction they produce is one of puzzlement rather than mesmerism. Some of Badalamenti's musical cues are overcooked, such as the huge dramatic chord when Sailor pulls up at Perdita's house. And the final scene, where Sailor and Lula reaffirm their love, lacks the beauty and irony of Blue Velvet's ending, which manages to be both uplifting and watchful.
Despite some self-imposed cuts on Lynch's part, there are many scenes in Wild at Heart which remain problematic. The violence is par for the course for an 18 certificate, even the sight of Willem Dafoe's character losing his head with a shotgun. But the sexual advances of Dafoe's character are deeply disturbing for all the wrong reasons, and the recurring image of Lula's rape does nothing but turn our stomachs.
Ultimately, the performances in Wild at Heart are enough to see things through. Nicolas Cage is on startling form, showing that he thrives when given a director who understands melodrama and exaggerated characters. He may be massively over-the-top, but it makes sense, and his Elvis impersonation is great. Laura Dern's unusual beauty fits the Southern belle look of her character, and we believe in her emotional turmoil throughout. Amongst the hysterical supporting case, including Dern's real-life mother Diane Ladd, the stand-out is Harry Dean Stanton, who stands calm in the eye of the storm, looking as bemused as the rest of us.
Wild at Heart is not Lynch's finest work by any stretch of the imagination. It has structural deficiencies which were not sorted out in the editing room, and the lurches in tone may prove too much for the casual viewer. But in the moments when it does work - and there are plenty - it is an often joyous reminder of Lynch's power as a film-maker, telling stories in ways which are frighteningly unique. While no masterpiece, nor an ideal starting point, it is often majestic and always memorable.


Wild at Heart was the most recent film screened at Filmstock, a film screening event in Culmstock. You can read my blog post about the screening here. The next screening will be The Rocky Horror Picture Show in November, so watch this space for announcements about that event.

NEXT REVIEW: The Incredibles (2004)