Monday, March 10, 2014

Wild at Heart (1990)

AKA Sailor and Lula

In June 2013 while giving an interview promoting his album The Big Dream, David Lynch made a depressing statement claiming his future as a filmmaker was uncertain, citing the current state of the industry saying “With alternative cinema, any sort of cinema that isn't mainstream , you're fresh out of luck in terms of getting theatre space and having people come to see it… Unfortunately, my ideas are not what you'd call commercial, and money really drives the boat these days. So I don't know what my future is. I don't have a clue what I'm going to be able to do in the world of cinema." While Lynch is hardly an obscure name as the man said, his stuff just isn’t multiplex material and while it might seem strange to those unaware of the phenomenon that was Lynch’s television series Twin Peaks but back in the early 90’s the thought of Lynch having trouble getting funds seemed almost as strange as his films. Still, despite the success of Twin Peaks, Lynch’s films remained dividing as ever. During the height of Twin Peaks’ acclaim, Wild at Heart was released and per usual the film, based on Barry Gifford’s book of the same name, divided both critics and audiences every which way and it still remains one of Lynch’s most polarizing films, as well as one of his most off the wall and entertaining.

After serving a 22 month sentence for manslaughter Elvis obsessed bad boy Sailor Ripley (Nicholas Case) is greeted at the prison gates by his equally free-spirited girlfriend Lula (Laura Dern) and the two immediacy rekindle their fiery romance, much to the chagrin of Lula’s domineering mother Marietta (Diane Ladd) who despises Sailor and is determined to end the relationship between him and Lula any way possible. Looking to get away from it all, Sailor and Lula hit the road, a decision which infuriates Marietta who sends her private eye “boyfriend” Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) to find the two while also hiring gangster Marcellus Santos to put a hit out on Sailor. At first oblivious to it all, Sailor and Lula continue on their journey, along the way encountering one odd, and ultimately dangerous character and situation after another.

Wild at Heart has the distinction of being one of Lynch’s more “user friendly” films while at the same time still being a completely psychotic piece of cinema bound to alienate more than it attracts. Like the majority of Lynch’s output its the type of film that simply cannot be pigeonholed into one genre or another. Its a road movie sure, yet its unlike any other road movie to come before or after it. This is a (head) trip across David Lynch’s America, a strange and at times horrifying, nightmarish place yet there are times where its also very beautiful. The film is also an absurdist comedy when it wants to be and the films bizarre style of humor actually wouldn’t feel all that out of place in a John Waters film but there’s something about it that it certifiably Lynch. Really though the film is essentially a love story and its the romance between Sailor and Lula that’s the centerpiece of the film and where those moments of beauty come into play, as Lynch himself described the film as about “finding love in Hell”. The film has a habit of going from one extreme to the next, oftentimes going from sweet and funny one moment to terrifying and violent the next without warring with jolting doses of classic Lynch surrealism tossed in all throughout the film. These abrupt changes in tone are usually cited by detractors of the film but in actuality they suit the style of this type of film perfectly.

Both Cage and Dern were born to play the roles of Sailor and Lula. Cage, complete with snakeskin jacket, is charisma personified with the Elvis mannerisms down to a science and Dern perfectly captured both Lula’s youthful idealism and naivety along with her fierce sexuality and resolve. As (brilliantly) over the top as both get in their performances, its again their romance that drives the film and the love the two  share for each other comes across as more than legitimate. Alongside Cage and Dern is perhaps the best cast Lynch ever assembled. Diane Ladd, Dern’s real life mother really goes for it and deserves extra praise for her unhinged performance. Ladd does wonders for the film in the comedic department, bringing the right amount of camp to Marietta while still being believable as a complete lunatic. As fantastic as Cage, Dern and Ladd are, stealing the show is Willem Dafoe as the slimy hitman Bobby Peru. Although Dafoe doesn’t enter until late in the film and isn’t actually in it for very long the impression left by his character is strong enough to completely own the film. Also making memorable appearances are Crispen Glover in one of the films most celebrated comedic segments, fellow Lynch regulars and Twin Peaks alum Grace Zabriskie, Isabella Rossellini, Jack Nance, Sherilyn Fenn and Laura Palmer herself Sheryl Lee in a scene that, despite the films constant references to The Wizard of Oz (1939) still seems to come out of nowhere, even for a film like this.

Lynch was tailor made to direct a road film with much of the films scenery being prime for Lynch’s signature iconography. Lynch’s attention to detail both visually and sonically is apparent right from the opening credits where the films reoccurring visual motif of fire is immediately established. All throughout the film Lynch offers a plethora of extreme close up’s of lit matches and the end of cigarettes as well as flashbacks to a massive fire which plays a major factor storyline wise, all accompanied by monolithic sounding low end sound effects. If Wild at Heart isn’t Lynch’s loudest film its damn close, in fact when the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival the technicians thought Lynch was joking when he requested the volume levels to be raised so high. As is always the case with Lynch the song selections for the soundtrack are impeccable proving once again that when it comes to matching picture with sound Lynch is untouchable and its often the songs that make the scene for instance the guitar twang of an instrumental version of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” playing while Sailor and Lula drive along a desolate highway featuring Lynch’s trademark shots of the open road at night. Also featured prominently in the film is “Slaughterhouse”, courtesy of underrated thrashers Powermad who even make an appearance in the film and of course there’s the two Elvis songs “Love Me” and “Love Me Tender” performed by Cage himself not to mention the contributions from the always reliable Angelo Badalamenti.
French poster and various DVD/Blu-ray releases for the film under
the Sailor et Lulu title.

Wild at Heart not only premiered at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival but it won the Palme d'Or which many in the audience were non too pleased with. In fact that boo’s were nearly as loud, and probably louder in select sections of the auditorium than the cheers. According to the Wikipedia article on the film Barry Gifford, who would later go on to co-write the masterpiece that is Lost Highway (1997) with Lynch, felt that many film journalists were against the film and Lynch from the very start and encouraging all the negativity. The reaction to the film winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes seemed to foreshadow the reaction once the film saw a wide release as again the film is the epitome of a love/hate type of situation and one of Lynch’s most dividing works. There are even some hardcore Lynch fanatics who can’t stand the film and despite the fact that its one of Lynch’s more straightforward from a narrative perspective its understandably still a difficult film for many to warm up too. Such is the mystifying world of David Lynch, but one things for certain, like all of Lynch’s films Wild at Heart is an unforgettable experience. Perhaps the film is best summed up by its title when referenced by Dern as Lula when describing her view of the world, “Wild at heart and weird on top”. Essential Lynch.


  1. Beautifully written post.....

    At least Mr. Lynch is honest with himself. He knows his movies are NEVER going to appeal to all those pod-people that prefer watching glorified tv commercials that pass for movies... And those same folks usually love watching bland, gutless, play-it-safe actresses and actors.

    I was one, of approximately 50 people in my local theater watching FIRE WALK WITH ME - most of those folks walked out midway through the movie!

    In regards to the music in his films... I think, many of the scenes in FIRE WALK WITH ME wouldn't have had the same impact without all those beautifully bizarre and loud instrumentals. Unique sounds seem to play an important part of his movies.

    I love most of Lynch's work. However, I will not purchase MULLHOLLAND DR because of all the censorship bullshit... It was totally unacceptable, and absurd. I still remember all the pissed-off folks returning their DVDs to local stores.

  2. Thanks CVB!

    I wasn't aware of any censorship issues with the Mulholland Drive DVD.