Saturday, July 23, 2011

Wild at Heart (1990)

It's natural for one of Hollywood's most fearless actors to team up with one of its most fearless directors. What's surprising is that it took until 1990 for Nicolas Cage to collaborate with David Lynch, only to never do so again. Cage brings his signature manic delivery, Elvis infatuation, and snakeskin jacket to Lynch's ultra violent Wizard of Oz referencing psychotic surreal romantic road movie Wild at Heart.

You! Guilty!

In order to properly orient his audience for the journey, Lynch opens with a severe and brutal death scene, wherein a hired killer brandishes a knife at Sailor Ripley (Cage) and Sailor reacts by smashing the man's head repeatedly against the marble floor until he's dead.

Medic! Oh wait I killed him.

After a brief stint in prison, Sailor is released and picked up by the love of his life, 20-year old Lulu Fortune (Laura Dern) and the two get out of dodge and head toward California. They begin their journey with hours of marathon-style sex and a visit to a nice speed metal bar, wherein Sailor interrupts his slamdancing to pick a fight with an innocent mosher who got too close to Lulu. After silencing the hardcore metal band on a dark dance floor with a slight wave of his arm, he reasserts his claim on Lulu and resumes his relaxing night on the town.

You ain't nothin' but a hound dog, moshin' all the time.

Meanwhile, Lulu's mother Marietta (Diane Ladd, Laura Dern's actual mother) hires lover Johnnie (Harry Dean Stanton) to track down the couple to get Lulu away from Sailor. Meanwhile, she also hires all-around mean guy Marcelles Santos (J.E. Freeman) to kill Sailor, but Santos also wants to kill Johnnie, so he hires two other killers through the help of a Mr. Reindeer (William Morgan Sheppard) and a pair of silver dollars. The two killers devote their time to Johnnie, while Lulu and Sailor head to Big Tuna, Texas hoping to catch a break from old friend Perdita Durango (Isabella Rossellini), but instead gets roped into a robbery plot with Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe). Everything goes horribly wrong and Sailor sings "Love Me Tender" to Lulu from atop a convertible.

This is how not normal you have to be to be considered not normal in a David Lynch film.

As you might expect, there is a lot of plot shoved into a two hour film. Lynch wrote the first draft in a week and shot in the two months following the Twin Peaks pilot. The result is a lot of stray Twin Peaks cast members, and similarities in look, feel, staging and plot. Lynch's signature nostalgia lens and 50s fetishization is evident here, but lacks the innocence of previous projects. He hopes to illustrate the brutality and hardships that young love often must endure, but even the enamored couple is not immune to Lynch's cruelty. The characterizations of Sailor and Lulu shift wildly from connection to alienation, empathy to psychosis. Sailor is relatable at times, but his manic outbursts and creepy over-the-brow staring do nothing to clarify the plot. Kyle MacLachlan does a much better job of grounding Lynch and keeping his more incomprehensible tendencies in check. Even as he speaks to a backwards talking midget in Twin Peaks, or witnesses Frank Booth's brutal sexual outbursts in Blue Velvet, he maintains an unchanging innocence that allows an audience to endear itself to a surreal world.

You want one of these?

Nicolas Cage, despite his best efforts, does not maintain this innocence, which probably has more to do with how he was written than his performance. He does his very best to relate to the content, but even as he mimics a hate crime or swoons Elvis tunes in a snakeskin jacket on a speed metal bar dance floor, he doesn't feel 100% right. He embraces Lynch's direction a little too enthusiastically, and as a result it doesn't feel as sincere as Dern's or Dafoe's performances, who clearly thought a lot more about where their characters fit in this universe.


Lynch's imagery is predictably disturbing and well-shot. He is a master of static composition; complementing and contrasting each shot with thoughtful decisions in tone, rhythm, color, and shape. Lynch also shoehorns a lot of Wizard of Oz references into the film, though it rarely seems appropriate.

Sorry for the shoehorn joke.
Wild at Heart won Cannes's top prize, the Palme d'Or, when it premiered at the festival in 1990. As the French like to approach all things in life, the film received a mixture of boos and cheers. Roger Ebert accused Lynch of being insincere, of essentially trolling his audience to make them the butt of some elaborate and incomprehensible joke. Lynch has never made an insincere film, but occasionally his mixture of dark imagery and innocent nostalgia does not altogether fit. The occurrences in Twin Peaks, though through a much subtler lens, are just as strange as Wild at Heart's, but the show gives the audience enough time to ingratiate itself to the characters. Wild at Heart doesn't feel strange because of Lynch, but with how little care he put into guiding his audience.

Arbitrary Rating:

One CageHead.


Punk: You look like a clown in that stupid jacket.
Sailor: This is a snakeskin jacket. And for me it's a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.
Punk: Asshole.

Sailor: You ain't gonna start worrying about what's bad for you? I mean, here you are, crossing state lines with a real murderer...
Lulu: A manslaughterer, honey, not murderer. Don't exaggerate.

Sailor: I'd like to apologize to you gentlemen for referring to you all as homosexuals. You taught me a valuable lesson in life.


A bit of the old ultraviolence in the very first scene:


  1. You didn't even mention that the first words after the credits are "Cape Fear." For a second I thought I walked into the wrong love letter to 40 years ago!

    *Note- the DeNiro film did not exist when Wild at Heart was made.

  2. I like how he says "Cape Fear" and then explains where Cape Fear is, as if either were useful to the story.