Wild at Heart
First screened and reviewed in March 2002 / Most recently screened in August 2016
Director: David Lynch. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Willem Dafoe, Harry Dean Stanton, J.E. Freeman, Crispin Glover, Sherilyn Fenn, Isabella Rossellini, Grace Zabriskie, Calvin Lockhart, Marvin Kaplan, John Lurie, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Freddie Jones. Screenplay: David Lynch (based on the novel by Barry Gifford).

Twitter Capsule: I'm at a loss. The film isn't as seductive a puzzle a Lynch's others. Some vivid moments but the whole disappoints.

Second Capsule: I rewatch this every few years, as if it'll cohere more, or I'll like it more, or less. My own American madness.

VOR:   Especially as Lynch has emerged as such a stingy visitor to this medium he's mastered, even his more awkward vehicles (this and Lost Highway) show and tell us a lot.

Photo © 1990 PolyGram Filmed Entertainment/Propaganda Films
When you call your film Wild at Heart, you're hardly hedging your bets about tonal excess, broad characterization, or extreme circumstance. So it's hard to apply these descriptions to David Lynch's 1990 Palme d'Or winner, apt though they may be, as though they were epithets. Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune, the lead characters played by Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, bear the chromosomal residue not only of American pop archetypes (Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando) but also of previous Lynch creations. Sailor is emphatically more oddball, more animal, less sheltered than the Kyle MacLachlan character in Blue Velvet, and Laura Dern is playing an obviously more capacious spirit than the one she contributed to the same, earlier film. In fact, Dern's Lula, with her eccentric, relentless carnality and her strangely divided reactions to her own suffering, feels more reminiscent of Isabella Rossellini's Blue Velvet character than of Dern's own. If it's already sounding as though Wild at Heart, even in its differences, lives largely in the shadow of Lynch's prior vision of warped Americana, that's hardly an accident. Wild at Heart palpably lacks the unnerving control—the distinctive, pleasure-painful combination of tense, febrile images with hypercharged narrative scenarios—that abounds in Blue Velvet and later in Mulholland Drive, those most prototypically "Lynchian" of Lynchian films.

Why compare them at all? Mostly because I find it so hard to make sense of the movie by itself. It is easy to observe the iconic embroideries of Cage's character, for example—the shellacked hair, the tight T-shirts, the open-top convertible, the husky baritone—or to listen to Sailor's self-conscious awareness of his own typology, manifest in lines such as, "This snakeskin jacket symbolizes my individuality and belief in personal freedom." We might speculate that Lynch is investigating what happens to stock figures of American pop lore when they are thrust into the quintessentially but differently "American" landscape of the Southwestern highway. The schizophrenic mismatch between Cage's greaser machismo, Dern's baby-doll allure, and the barren mesas on the sun-blasted horizon conveys how America's favorite visions of itself don't always cohere in juxtaposition. That is, if you line up too many symbols of "America" in close quarters, they announce not the integrity but the incoherence of the national project and its cultural reference-points.

But even positing ideas like these amounts to grasping at straws, because Lynch in fact tosses so many elements into his concoction that the disorder is hard to parse through any organized system. Outliers in the film's motley crew of characters include gentle weirdos like Rossellini's motel-dwelling fortune-teller, Perdita Durango; dangerous, even psychopathic weirdos like Willem Dafoe's lecherous and grotesquely toothsome Bobby Peru; and endearing, minor-league weirdos like Johnnie Farragut, a scraggly and perplexed private-eye played by Harry Dean Stanton in one of his priceless renderings of taciturn, ever-agog wanderers. These are all memorable characters, and they correspond to certain archetypes in our cinematic and social history. Still, they are hardly hypericonic, as the Cage and Dern figures are. This is not, then, a film "about" iconicity, or pastiched recombinations of wholly inherited elements, because too many of the film's personas feel irrefragably singular, however perfumed with a vague air of broad familiarity.

Blazing away amidst all these stock and semi-stock figures is Diane Ladd's scene-stealing Marietta Fortune, who gives Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate some fierce competition as the screen's wickedest Mama. Marietta, and Ladd's insanely inspired playing of her, not only surpass mere caricature but manage to evoke real, furious, terrifying emotion, rather than advertise the quotation marks around the character. This woman's outbursts, not just taking out a hit on her daughter's fiancé but smearing the surface of her skin with scarlet lipstick shortly afterward, are as irrational to her as they appear to us. They are only intelligible, at least to me, on the plane of pure emotion, where they certainly register hotly. Is there something to be said about the bitterness of the clash between Cage's cool prototype and Ladd's volcanic original, as though a purposely "flat" figure and a wildly excessive one can't help but be enemies? Who can say? I'm just spitballing here.

In general, that's where I'm left with Wild at Heart, especially after only one viewing. I experience it as a strange, heterogeneous, ferociously colored art-object that is keener to provoke a response, any response, than to codify in advance whatever that response might be, or what framework we might employ in order to arrive at one. Yes, it's what most art should do, and yes, it's a cop-out to offer this as a "reading" of the film. It's clearly an inadequate description of what Wild at Heart has to offer; fter all, when some audiences have spoken similarly of Mulholland Drive, I have taken such statements as a verbal way of throwing one's analytic hands in the air. That said, I don't doubt that Lynch and his signature collaborators—cinematographer Frederick Elmes and composer Angelo Badalamenti among them—are perfectly content to have their films provoke inarticulate bafflement in their spectators. And some of the impressions made by this vivid if largely inchoate film already feel indelible: Ladd's hairstyles and cosmetic adventures; the sound of a blown-off head hitting the pavement; the rushing air in slowed moments of melodramatic import. These moments and patterns are bracing in ways that only film can be bracing. An entire sequence in which Sailor and Lula encounter a car-accident victim who has lost her bearings—Sherilyn Fenn, in a pre-Twin Peaks cameo—is a haunting, expertly shot and edited interlude to rival anything in Cronenberg's Crash, which in my mind is distinguished company.

I can't pretend that I "enjoyed" watching Wild at Heart in the same way as I did The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, or Mulholland Drive. The narrative and the images of this film have a static quality and, paradoxically, an outward-spiralling geography that provoked at least as much boredom and confusion as they did fascination. Ladd's rage is so over-the-top that she almost throws the film out of whack. Certainly, the other supporting players seem pale by comparison, and since the fraught triangle of Sailor, Lula, and Marietta is no longer at the picture's core by the second hour, I found my attention drifting. The reason I am saying all this is that I find it uncomfortable to recommend Wild at Heart, and I recognize that recommendation is the reason many of my readers utilize the website. I am drawn to watch the movie again, so as to formulate a clearer description and a sharper guess about the movie's structure, but I am also loath to have the Wild at Heart experience repeatedly in close succession, whereas I couldn't wait to cruise down Mulholland a second and third and fourth time. What I suppose all of this amounts to is that even though I'm not sure what to do with movies like this, I wish there were more of them: Wild at Heart is a total challenge, an outright provocation, in a medium that is producing less of those experiences than it should. I remain grateful for Wild at Heart even as I confess my manifest uncertainty as to what, exactly, I felt so grateful for. If you go on this journey, send me a postcard—tell me what you found. Grade: B–

(in September 2007: C+)

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress: Diane Ladd

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress: Diane Ladd

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Palme d'Or (Best Picture)
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Cinematography (Frederick Elmes)

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