Saturday 18 February 2023

Wild at Heart (1990)

Director: David Lynch
Writer: David Lynch, based on the novel by Barry Gifford
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe, J. E. Freeman, Crispin Glover, Diane Ladd, Calvin Lockhart, Isabella Rossellini, Harry Dean Stanton and Grace Zabriskie

Index: The First Thirty.

As I started to wonder about how Industrial Symphony No. 1 would play in my brain over a period of time, I moved onto Wild at Heart, one of the David Lynch films that I’ve seen before and yet don’t remember much about. Mostly it seems to have blurred into the period’s array of movies about adult couples running away from everything and getting into all sorts of trouble. Then again, I remember much more about Natural Born Killers and Thelma and Louise.

This particular couple are Sailor and Lula, in the forms of Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, the couple whose phone call break up is the start to Industrial Symphony. Here, there’s no chance of a breakup, because they’re head over heels in love with each other, to the disdain of her mother, who is as mad as a hatter and almost as outrageous about it as the Red Queen.

It’s a constant amazement that mother and daughter are played by mother and daughter, because Marietta Fortune is Diane Ladd, who’s Laura Dern’s mother both on and off screen. The longer the film lasts, the more Lula strips off for more sex scenes with Sailor, the more of a grotesque embarrassment Marietta turns into and the more we wonder how these two actors must have felt at the première as they sat there watching each other’s performances.

To be fair, both performances are magnetic and Ladd was deservedly Oscar nominated for her work, though she lost to Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost. For all that Sailor and Lula are who we’re supposed to follow, while they interact with a whole succession of quirky characters played by greatly talented supporting actors, it seems unfair to suggest that Marietta is just the first of them. She drives this plot far more than Sailor and Lula do.

We gradually learn the reasons why in a set of flashback scenes that flesh out a number of back stories, but it’s clear right off the bat that Marietta wants Sailor dead. In fact, she hires a man named Bobby Ray Lemon to kill him, but Sailor bludgeons him to death instead. That’s why he only spends 22 months and 18 days in the Pee Dee Correctional Institute because he goes down for manslaughter not murder.

We fast forward through his jail time, just as we did in Raising Arizona, so that Lula can pick him up, against her mother’s strict orders, and hand him his snakeskin jacket and go dancing at a thrash metal concert and... well, let’s just say that plenty of things happen because she’s unwilling to listen to her mad mum.

The question is how we’re supposed to take all these things that happen, because Lynch is a surrealist and, as we’ve learned, so is Cage. It shouldn’t surprise that this departs from any semblance of our reality pretty quickly.

When that happens for you will depend on you, but for me it was at that concert. You see, there are a number of themes here that Lynch weaves constantly into his script, so we’re not far from at least one of them at any point. The first is fire, because that rages throughout the opening credits, but there’s also The Wizard of Oz and Elvis Presley, suggesting that this is as much a fantasy as it is a road movie or any of the other genres it drives through.

And, having attended plenty of thrash metal gigs, even if Powermad didn’t play at any of them, what happens at this concert is utter lunacy. Sailor and Lula are letting their hair down, which for him means Elvis Presley kung fu kicks and for her means getting flirted with. Sailor takes that poorly and has the band stop playing just so he can force this poor soul into an apology. If that wasn’t enough, he takes the microphone and leads a thrash metal band in a rendition of Elvis’s Love Me. This is sheerest fantasy, of course. The question is whose.

In other hands, this would fail quickly and horribly and Wild at Heart was not universally lauded in 1990. There were a lot of walkouts at early screenings, including at Cannes, where it controversially won the Palme d’Or. But Lynch is good at this and Cage was getting better. In fact, taking on this role of “a kind of romantic Southern outlaw” was a perfect choice. Unlike Peggy Sue Got Married or Vampire’s Kiss, when he did outrageous things amongst a cast that had no intention of following suit, here the entire cast does outrageous things and he’s far from the most outrageous of them.

Even when his dialogue is outrageous, as it generally tends to be, he plays it straighter than other actors. The “idiot punk”, as he’s credited, at the Powermad gig, makes fun of his “stupid jacket.” “This is a snakeskin jacket,” replies Sailor, repeating an earlier line that “for me, it’s a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.”

There are plenty of unrealistic lines that he delivers utterly straight, like “I guess I started smoking when I was about four. My momma was already dead then from lung cancer.” He’s clearly enjoying every one of them.

But he’s not as outrageous as any of the wild variety of memorable faces and bodies Lynch throws at the screen, right down to uncredited actors. Crispin Glover is memorable. Sherilyn Fenn is memorable. Harry Dean Stanton, as he tends to be, is memorable. A pair of assassins appear as a tall black guy with a creepy smile and a woman with a club leg. One random bar patron squeaks like a duck. A couple of hotel detectives are geriatics who can hardly walk.

This extends to signs, places, especially Big Tuna, Texas, which is where we meet Willem Dafoe, who frankly would have stolen this film if Diane Ladd wasn’t in it. He is as outrageous as we expect Nicolas Cage to be and he’s eager and twisted to boot. Bobby Peru is functional in ways that Marietta Fortune isn’t, but both of them are utterly broken as human beings.

After all, “This whole world’s wild at heart and weird on top,” as Lula says. Lynch brings the weird in a thousand different ways. Sailor is the wild at heart, even more than Lula, who tries to be, and Cage does a great job at flying free, even though he’s locked up twice.

Interestingly, Dern and Cage took the view that they were playing the same character, in male and female forms. That puts mad mama in a completely different light!

I can’t say that I was sold on this, and I rated it lower than I did last time out, back in 2005, but it’s a visual treat and quite the experience. It just seems that it makes less sense the more I understand.

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