Wild At Heart

David Lynch’s Wild at Heart is the slowest, cruelest kind of train wreck. It runs off the rails and plunges through a carnival freak show, throwing up bits of colorful fabric, garish lights and the viscera of the lamentably and comically deformed, before grinding to a stuttering halt in a near-by ravine, saturated with the stench of human offal and the screams of the dying. Calling the film excessive, or indulgent, is a grotesque understatement. This is, without a doubt, Lynch at his most tonally schizophrenic, as even Inland Empire kept up a mostly persistent mood of dread throughout its enigmatic overkill (random dance numbers aside). Thoroughly obscene and laughably revolting, the film constantly whips through a gamut of tones, from forced romantic tripe, to hokey, anorexic noir, to Dadaist nausea. Then it has the balls to go back and do it again, and again. All the while, it’s punctuated with bizarre non-sequiturs that give the audience nothing, but maybe the occasional aching jaw, or bleeding scalp. This isn’t just a train wreck, it’s vomit that coalesced into a train wreck! It is a savage, unpleasant, and overdone torrent of acidic, steel nastiness, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it stripped the enamel off Mr. Lynch’s teeth on the way out, and left nothing but scorched nerves.

I loved practically every second of it.

While on a first glance, it might look Mr. Lynch lost what little semblance of sanity that he might have otherwise possessed, there’s a clear method to his madness. He is meticulous in his blurring of tones and emotions. With the film’s constant tangents and juxtapositions, it would have been a bloated disaster if in the hands of a lesser artist. But because of Lynch’s sharp filmmaking, it is instead one of the most beautifully over-the-top black comedies ever made. Fast and full of surprises, the film is so wonderfully caricatured, that through most of the first and second acts, I never had enough time for my smile to slink away, without it being bitch-slapped back into place.

The film opens with Sailor Ripley (played with suave detachment by Nicolas Cage) walking with this sweetheart, Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) through the grand halls of the Cape Fear. Lula’s Mother, Marietta Fortune (played by Dern’s real life mother, Dianne Lad) slinks up behind a pillar with her cocktail, while Sailor is accosted by a man with a knife. In the first of many scenes so violent, they would make Alex DeLarge blush, Sailor Ripley bashes his assailant’s head into a wooden banister, until his white matter is visible, as sweet Lula screams in horror. Skipping ahead a few months, Sailor is released from prison, for manslaughter, and Lula, overjoyed to see him, hands him his trademark snakeskin jacket (the symbol of his “individuality and a belief in personal freedom”.) After beating up a guy in a club, and crooning an Elvis number, Sailor and Lula decide to break parole, and embark on a cross-country odyssey, to California.

Of course, this angers Lula’s overbearing mother, so she calls on both the sympathetic detective, Johnny Farragut (Henry Dean Stanton) and the brutally cool hit man Marcellus Santos (J. E. Freeman), to track down Lula, and murder Sailor. She reveals herself more than a bit mentally unstable, as she’s romantically involved with both men, and somehow expects to avoid anything terrible coming out of this wacky plan of hers.

The first two thirds are as delightful as they are deranged. Scenes of Sailor and Lula car-dancing on the open road are intercut with a descent into temporary insanity that paints Marietta as a kind of comically inept Lady Macbeth. For awhile, everything seems like such an anomaly for Lynch, as most of the film lacks the elegant visual lyricism as his more surreal pictures. But the light does break through in several scenes, illuminating familiar stylistic flourishes. (An eerie phone call chain beautifully foreshadows a similar scene in Mulholland Dr.) Cage and Dern have real chemistry, despite playing the caricatured nature of their performances. Getting past the frank sex talk, the scenes of Sailor and Lula in bed together are beautiful, crystalline icebergs of intimacy in a sea of wild detachment. Lynch stylishly intercuts these scenes with disturbing flashbacks, revealing that they’re both irrevocably wounded, and have hidden depths that they would prefer not to excavate.

The films biggest flaw, though, is potentially it’s third act. My ambivalence to this last section deals mostly with the degree of tonal isolation it has from the first two thirds of the film. The wacky misadventures of Marietta and her hit man lover suddenly disappear for about a half-hour, and the realities of life seem to come crashing down on Sailor and Lula, threatening to asphyxiate their idealistic, rebellious nature.

On one hand, the final section is quite effective, both viscerally and emotionally. Without the quiet slide into bleak misanthropy, the sentimental ending wouldn’t be anywhere near as beautiful, or as effective. Ex-Marine Bobby Peru (played with maniacal glee by Willem Defoe) is a wonderful antagonist, simply because he’s so comically vulgar, you need to laugh as a reflex. (His slicked back hair, pencil mustache and tiny yellow teeth make him look like a fetal, redneck clone of John Waters.) Deserving of mention is a scene so tasteless, that it fits the character perfectly. I won’t spoil any specifics, but an interaction between Peru and Lula is simply painful to watch, and makes Hitchcock’s acts of simulated misogyny look feminist by comparison.

On the other hand, after the roller-coaster of the first two parts, this last part is just nowhere near as fun. In fact, part of it feels like we’ve suddenly switched reels, and are watching a different film. Bobby Peru works as a villain, but his presence renders the role of Marcellus Santos almost pointless. In fact, the disconnect of the third act’s resolution from the first act’s set-up, almost renders most of the story as extraneous. It doesn’t even feel like the plot actually begins until an hour in. In that regard, what does the continued presence of Marietta and her two lovers have to do with anything? They certainly don’t get anyone closer to Sailor and Lula. If that stuff wasn’t so fun by itself, the film would be a plodding disaster.

But getting back to my ambivalence, the cons I just listed seem to have even more pros attached to them. Lynch has always been far more concerned with atmosphere than story, and he constantly sacrifices plot for the exploration of characters and ideas. Even if those sections meander into strange places, we do learn a lot about our star-crossed protagonists. Still, some tangents are less fruitful than others. What does the story about Lula’s insane cousin Dell have to do with anything, other than making the audience uncomfortable? Is it an ill omen, like when Sailor and Lula come across a car crash on a nocturnal highway? Or is it just another of the film’s many sick jokes?

All in all, the closest film of Lynch’s that Wild at Heart compares to, is Blue Velvet. That is, if Blue Velvet ate a bunch of tacos, chugged a gallon of peyote, and then went to go vomit in the desert for a few days. As much as I like Blue Velvet, it never comes together as a satisfying whole, and relies on several brilliant moments to carry the film. This is primarily because it fluctuates between grim scenes of exploitative sexuality, and saccharine fifties nostalgia. Wild at Heart, operates on a similar dichotomy, only far more fractured, and less contained.


About Daniel Joseph Caron
Daniel Joseph Caron is a perfectly standard human being with all the major organs and several minor ones. Sometimes he likes to eat.

One Response to Wild At Heart

  1. Phillip Wand says:

    I’m not even me


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