To misquote a line from Wild At Heart (1990), the way director, David Lynch’s head works is God’s own private mystery. Depending on one’s point of view, the fact that Hollywood has allowed this hallucinogenic showman to proliferate his bizarre visions for so long is either a colossal mistake or sinister joke perpetuated on the audience. Personally, I’m still trying to figure out which. Lest we forget, this is a director who can dazzle us with some of the most perverse human behavior ever to corrupt a movie screen – salacious, tasteless, exotic and undeniably provocative. Without exercising the idiom ‘talking out both sides of my mouth’, my own affection for Lynch’s work is mostly a compliment to his testament of incorrigibly ridiculous dystopian world views, regarding a hopelessly chaotic culture gone mad. Ironically, Lynch’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ approach to life used to come across as a lot more unsettling than it does today; a very sad indictment on where our pop entertainment has taken us in more recent times; into a sort of artist’s purgatory where ‘art’ itself has become synonymous with smut. Let’s be honest, when we live in a world where even a woman expelling paintballs from her clitoris can be considered performance art, David Lynch can seem marginally mainstream to downright quaint by direct comparison.
By Lynch’s own account, he grew up relatively normal in an elegant house on a tree-lined street, surrounded by manicured yards and the proverbial white picket fence. In some ways, Lynch’s entire career has been a response – or rather, backlash – to this unassuming upbringing; a way to conduct an autopsy on his own ‘beautiful world’ and reveal the heinousness, gutter depravity and crass commercialism lurking just beneath. I can’t say I’m a fan of David Lynch. I don’t suppose anybody really is. What is admirable about the man and his work is Lynch’s ability to scratch the surface of a seeming unobtrusive place and time. Lynch doesn’t create the blemish or blight on this idyllic surface sheen. He merely is brave enough – and perhaps perverted by his own curiosity – to pick at the crusty scabs, allowing the puss and ugliness of life its penetrating escape to the surface. Watching any David Lynch movie is likely to put one off; to confuse, and be left questioning either personal sanity or that of the conjurer who has committed such mind-blowing images to celluloid.
Wild At Heart traverses familiar Lynchian territory, embellishing the nightmare with a patina of amoral tawdriness and C-grade filth. Flat-chested, gum-chomping femme fatale, Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) and her fetishized Elvis-impersonating Lochinvar with anger-management issues, Sailor Ripley (Nicholas Cage) are hardly beautiful people. Yet, surrounded by an iniquitous halo of covetous cutthroats, they seem almost normal by comparison: definitely odd, but human nonetheless. In another place and time, they might even have sunk to their own level of misguided happiness. Okay, it’s a stretch. It might even be a myth, one subliminally perpetuated in Lynch’s screenplay, saturating the intellect with human waste and urban decay almost through osmosis. Lynch’s heavy-handed visual style sears its counterculture social mores into our collective understanding with all the subtly of a sledgehammer cutting through a slab of Jell-o.
Lynch’s movies in general, and Wild at Heart in particular, don’t make us think so much as they proselytize the viewer into a new perspective – nee almost ‘acceptance’ – for this alter-universe running parallel, yet counter-intuitive to our own belief system; making us see the world through some very cracked uber rose-colored glasses, or rather, David Lynch’s eyes. The view is never appealing, nor is it meant to be. Let’s be honest: you aren’t watching a David Lynch movie to feed your ‘feel good’. Yet, however disgusted we may become while allowing his visuals to wash over us from the third row, we do come away with an alternative point of view; however repugnant and socially depraved it may be…and it is. There’s no joy in a David Lynch movie, begging the question why anyone would willing submit to the experience. The answer, perhaps, lies in basic human curiosity. You know…the same kind that killed the proverbial cat. Lynch’s movies get a strangle-hold on our rosy visions of life and never quite let go. While some movies brutalize the audience with nasty images we cannot relate to, Lynch’s don’t necessarily concoct the nightmare, so much as they make us aware of the fact we may be already living in the midst of one.
After an opening credit sequence layered over a sea of hellish flames, we find our white trash/red-hot lovers Lula and Sailor on the steps of a dancehall; the pair accosted by Bobby Ray Lemon (Gregg Dandridge); a thug in a three piece, who makes the allegation Sailor is hot for Lula’s mama, Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd, looking like a grotesque Mae West knockoff). The truth is Marietta lusts after Sailor, determined that if she cannot have him no one - not even Lula - will. Bobby pulls a switchblade. But self-defense is carried one step too far when Sailor proceeds to mash Bobby’s brains into the hard tile floor, leaving a bloody pool in the foyer of the club. In short order, Sailor is carted off to jail – but not for murder, only manslaughter. This fine line of distinction, and Sailor’s good behavior while inside the joint, gets him paroled in record time.
His first telephone call is to Lula. Regrettably, Marietta answers the phone, threatening to kill Sailor if he comes near the family home. No worries about that, since Lula is already in the car and off to pick her man up; reuniting Sailor with his snakeskin jacket that, according to Sailor, symbolizes his individuality and belief in personal freedom. The pair hightail it to a seedy motel – one of many – for the first in a series of raunchy sex scenes, shot by cinematographer Fredrick Elmes through heavily diffused color filters, but with very little subterfuge. Note to self: I’ve seen enough of Laura Dern’s meager cleavage to last me a lifetime.
In flashback, we discover Lula was raped by ‘an uncle’ (Marvin Pooch) who died in a mysterious car explosion not long thereafter. To say Lula’s past is sordid is an understatement. Her father was doused in gasoline and lit on fire by one of Marietta’s casual lovers, Marcelles Santos (J.E. Freeman). The Fortune bloodline really did need some pruning; populated by weirdoes, including Marietta’s latest flame, the milquetoast, Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) and Lula’s Cousin Dell (Crispin Glover) who used to enjoy placing live cockroaches on his anus – and no, I’m not going to delve into this plot point any further.
Sailor breaks his parole to chart a course for New Orleans – Lula’s favorite city. Along the way the couple stops at a hard rock hell hole where Sailor prevents an idiot punk (Brent David Fraser) from groping his woman; then, encouraging the speed metal band, Powermad to accompany him in a serenade of Elvis Presley’s ‘Love Me’. Sailor’s impromptu performance inexplicably sends the punk female crowd into a giddy collective swoon. Meanwhile, Marietta, pretending her only concern is her daughter, urges Johnnie to pursue the pair. Actually, Marietta is consumed with revenge – having been spurned by Sailor and determined to see him dead. When Johnnie fails to come up with any viable leads, Marietta grows impatient, then crazy. This crippling madness manifests itself by painting her entire face and wrists in blood-red lipstick. She hires Santos to do a hit. Santos promises to bring Lula back. But in addition to killing Sailor, he also promises to take great pleasure eliminating Johnnie.
Santos taps his contact in New Orleans; a mobster named Mr. Reindeer (W. Morgan Sheppard) who sends his gimp, Reggie (Calvin Lockhart) and Juana Durango (Grace Zabriskie), a peg-legged hooker with rotting teeth, after Johnnie. In the meantime, Marietta has snapped out of her turbo-injected psychosis, at least long enough to see the error of her ways, and, jump in the car to be reunited with Johnnie in the Big Easy. She promises him just as soon as Lula is safe, things will be different between them. Regrettably, Juana and Reggie capture and murder Johnnie. Unaware of these events, Lula and Sailor continue their sex-crazed, cross-country trek, driving through Texas en route to California; coming across a terrible wreck at night in the middle of the desert. The driver and a passenger are already dead by the side of the road. But another passenger (Sherilyn Fenn) is found bloody and raving as she attempts to explain to Sailor and Lula what happened. However, before she can finish her statement, the girl collapses; blood oozing from her nose and mouth. Lula regards this as a very bad omen.
With little money to sustain their journey, Sailor drives to Big Tuna, Texas where he contacts Perdita Durango (Isabella Rossellini); an ‘old friend’ who actually knows Marietta has contracted his murder. Sailor and Lula rent a room at an out-of-the-way motel where they encounter some lowlifes, including Buddy (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and 00 Spool (Jack Nance) who discuss the wreck in the desert. Lula confides in Sailor; she is pregnant with his child. Sailor couldn’t be more pleased. But a baby takes money. So Sailor reluctantly agrees to Perdita’s half-baked plan to hold up a local feed store with gangster, Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe); a sadist who has other plans for Sailor. While Lula waits at the motel, Perdita drives the getaway car to the holdup; playing dumb after an unsuspecting police officer (Neil Summers) stops to question her. Bobby loses his already tenuous grip on reality, opens fire and thus draws attention to the robbery. Perdita drives off.
Sailor emerges from the feed store still wearing his nylon stocking mask, Bobby making chase with his reloaded rifle. The cop shoots Bobby several times in the chest, causing him to accidentally shoot himself in the chin with his rifle and thus, blow his head clean from his body. Yes, it is as disgusting as it sounds! Arrested for armed robbery, Sailor is given six years in the penitentiary. Time passes. Upon Sailor’s release, Lula, despite Marietta’s strenuous objections, is waiting for Sailor; this time, to introduce him to Pace (Glenn Walker Harris Jr.), the son he has never known. Believing Lula and Pace would be better off without him, Sailor walks off down a lonely road, through a seemingly abandoned industrial park. Almost immediately, he is confronted by a Hispanic gang, the leader knocking Sailor unconscious and breaking his nose. In his semi-lucid state Sailor hallucinates an encounter with Glinda (Sheryl Lee) – the Good Witch of the North from The Wizard of Oz. She elucidates for Sailor that his future is with Lula and Pace. Being the upstanding guy that he is (at least where Lula is concerned), Sailor rises to the occasion, sprinting into his girlfriend’s arms, singing ‘Love Me Tender’ – the song he always intended to perform for his wife.
Like most of David Lynch’s work, Wild at Heart defies explanation. It’s myriad of references to Oz, including a scene where Marietta barfs into a toilet while wearing black pointy shoes; Lula’s frequently imagined incarnations of mama in full wicked witch’s garb, pursuing them on a broomstick, and, the penultimate moment, where a frustrated Lula douses water on Marietta’s framed portrait, burning a hole through its façade, do not enlighten per say. I mean, we get the parallel. Witches come in many forms. So does the devil. Marietta Fortune is a gargoyle. Yet, within the movie’s landscape of heartless cruelty, she’s really not any more or less wicked than say, Mr. Reindeer, or Bobby Peru.
The performances throughout Wild at Heart are all uniformly bad – or rather, good, in a ‘crash and burn’ sort of way. It’s transparently obvious Laura Dern is reveling in her ‘dulcet bad girl’; mixing silliness with the slut factor to induce us to care. Nicholas Cage is his usual creepy self; mildly unhinged in spots, but mostly bored with any scene that doesn’t begin with his homage to Elvis or end with his shaggy torso MACtac’ed to Dern’s anemic nipples. The supporting cast do their part; the vignette with Crispin Glover feelin’ his groove as a live bug crawls up his butt, generally a waste of that actor’s superior talents. Isabella Rossellini gets short-shrift this time around too; looking like the very haggard/exceptionally bitter reject from the undead. Willem Dafoe is just plain sinister as the leering, all-gums and trigger-happy freak of nature.
Depending on one’s point of view, Wild at Heart is either a masterpiece of cameos or a dirty, disposable little nothing, never truly coming together to satisfy as pure entertainment. Lynch seems to have lost his way through this quagmire of departing innocence and infested evil. There’s no stratagem and/or context to any of the aforementioned; not even a shred of significance. Bizarre is one thing. But Lynch interpolates this excursion into the uncanny with bouts of very jejune comedy; neither amusing, nor ironic, but wreaking of rank self-evasive parody.
Because of this, Wild at Heart tends to unravel into dishonest, very cartoony and one-dimensional characters. Its narrative oddities just seem forced, its agenda intercepted, then sabotaged by Lynch in his feeble attempts to make this toxic cinema more mainstream as palpable pop satire. In one sense, he’s gone too far down the rabbit hole, and yet, in another, he hasn’t nearly gone far enough; his visions of abject derangement and raw passion becoming a mishmash rather than a potpourri. There’s no challenge to his exercise; just a lot of dreck bubbling up and the horrid aftertaste of betrayal and ‘sell out’ once the houselights have come up.
Fox/MGM’s Blu-ray release via Twilight Time leaves much to be desired. Obviously sourced from a print instead of the original camera negative, Wild at Heart neither pops nor sparkles as it should. Colors are, at times, rich, but unrefined. Contrast is rather inconsistently rendered throughout. Film grain never appears natural; gritty and/or digitally harsh or practically non-existent. There’s no happy medium. Worse, nicks, chips and dot crawl are evident throughout. Comparing the old DVD release alongside this ‘new’ 1080p transfer, Fox/MGM appear to have used the same flawed digital files for this ‘upgrade’; the inherent age-related damage occurring in the same spots on both the DVD and Blu-ray.
The Blu-ray’s 5.1 DTS vastly improves on the old DVD 5.1 Dolby Digital (which wasn’t hard to do). With the exception of Twilight Time’s usual commitment to an isolated score track – and Julie Kirgo’s magnificent liner notes (always a treat), all of the extras included herein are directly ported over from MGM’s DVD, including a ‘making of’ featurette, extended interviews, a piece with David Lynch expounding on the experience of conceiving and making the movie, the original theatrical trailer and 4 TV spots. Bottom line: if you’re a fan of Wild At Heart the Blu-ray bests the DVD - but only marginally.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)