Wild at Heart (1990): The most wonderfully deranged love story ever

I’ve always been highly enamoured of David Lynch, to the extent that he sits on my personal ‘Mount Rushmore’ of directors alongside Martin Scorsese, John Cassavetes and Brian De Palma. From the nightmarish experimentalism of Eraserhead and Inland Empire right through to the smoky neo-noir sensibilities of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive and genre-bending madcappery of Twin Peaks, Lynch has spent decades cementing a reputation as one of the most visionary and spellbinding auteurs to have ever picked up a camera.

Cited by critic Pauline Kael as being ”the first popular Surrealist”, he has captivated audiences with his unique depiction of the juxtaposition of wholesome, apple-pie American suburbs with underworlds populated by people of a deeply pathological eccentricity. The overwhelming majority of his characters can be charitably described as bizarre, ranging from the amiably quirky to the downright disturbed. Flickering lightbulbs, crackling fires, arresting lighting techniques and cryptic dialogue imbue his films (particularly Lost Highway onwards) with an unrivalled oneiric quality that accentuates themes of identity and subconscious desires/fears in the most alluringly disquieting manner.

Wild at Heart, Lynch’s adaptation of Barry Gifford’s first novel in the Sailor & Lula series, might have a dedicated following but it isn’t mentioned nearly as enough as his other works in general discourse. For shame really, as it stands out as the most energised illustration of the director’s idiosyncrasies and is also the most hilarious of his films, benefitting from a killer soundtrack, uniformly top-drawer performances and a timelessly fascinating view of the ol’ U.S. of A.

Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) is a young North Carolinian man who worships Elvis Presley, possesses lethal dance moves and is very attached to his snakeskin jacket, an object that symbolises his individuality and belief in personal freedom. The only thing in the world that he loves a little more than all of that is Lula Fortune (Laura Dern), his vivacious girlfriend who also happens to be the daughter of the overbearing and utterly crazy Marietta (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real-life mother), a shrieking cataclysm of a woman with connections to local organised crime. As the film opens, we learn that Marietta’s sexual advances have been indignantly rebuffed by Sailor, enraging her to the point that she pays off a thug to knife Sailor to death, only for the hired killer to fail miserably as Sailor batters him into a corpsey mess. Set to the adrenalising tones of ‘Slaughterhouse’ by Powermad, the scene is equal parts nauseating and hilarious in its ridiculously excessive brutality.

After Sailor serves a few years inside for manslaughter, Lula picks him up and drives to a hotel where they bang the daylights out of each other (this is an extraordinarily horny couple. Good for them) before going to a concert. On a whim, the twosome decide to break Sailor’s parole and head off to make a new life in California. Freaking out, Marietta sends her boyfriend, private detective Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), to locate the couple and retrieve Lula. She also secretly retains the services of crime lord Marcelles Santos (J.E. Freeman), who orders a group of assassins to follow Farragut’s trail and kill Sailor. As the lovers make their way across the country, they are beset by encounters with an array of larger-than-life, predominantly imbalanced characters and fantastical imagery that offers uncanny distortions of popular culture.

The first few minutes of Wild at Heart leave you under no illusion that you’re in for a thoroughly demented time. Glenn Miller’s charming standard In The Mood and images of opulence are punctuated by furious heavy metal and wince-inducing bloodshed, one of a multitude of deft and nutty ways in which Lynch presents Sailor & Lula as two ‘true’ characters in a world composed of artifice. Whereas Marietta and her entourage are largely predatory sociopaths and weak-minded ethical vacuums, the lovebirds are of pure intent and reasonable moral fibre, although you certainly wouldn’t want to pick a fight with Mr Ripley. There is a heavily-charged eroticism to their relationship (intense scenes of hanky-panky to the tune of the aforementioned Powermad song feature more than once) but, far from being merely titillating, it is also amusingly strange and bizarrely poignant. The chemistry of our heroes has a transcendent quality, and even though they are no less mad than everybody else, they’re a lot nicer with it.

There is a running theme of homage to The Wizard of Oz, the couple’s road trip alluding to the Yellow Brick Road and Marietta providing a most warped interpretation of the Wicked Witch of the West. This loose makeover of a children’s fantasy tale compounds Lynch’s intention of showing two people who ‘found love in Hell’ in an addictively twisted manner, the relative innocence of L. Frank Baum’s good/evil dichotomy infused with graphic sex and extreme violence. It’s a great way of showcasing the fact that many highly regarded fairy tales have their roots in dark and visceral realms of the human subconscious.

As Marietta grows more unhinged by the minute and Santos’ crew of bloodthirsty flying monkey weirdos (led by a terrifying Grace Zabriskie) zero in on the couple, setbacks and omens see our heroes following the road to their own Emerald City, which in this case is the off-the-charts insane town of Big Tuna, Texas. A handful of friendly if disconcerting locals (such as the ever-reliable Jack Nance) parallel the Munchkins of Munchkinland nicely, and it’s also the location where Sailor meets a character who strongly contends for ‘Creepiest Piece of Shit’ award, Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe). Sailor & Lula’s ongoing effort to combat their nemeses and stay strong together is at once cartoonish and resonant, and there is undeniable dramatic weight when Lula asserts that ”This whole world is wild at heart and weird on top”.

In addition to the ear-splitting Powermad motif, there is a fitting contrast with more conventionally romantic musical fare, not limited to Cage providing his own voice to scenes where Sailor serenades Lula with several hits by The King. The use of Be-Bop-A-Lu-La by Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps whimsically reflects Sailor’s atavistic 1950s-style attitudes about gentlemanly conduct and chivalry, and Lynch proves his aptitude for a more emotionally reflective dimension to soundscapes with the inclusion of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game when the couple are driving at night. Long-time Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti is on hand to provide a flawlessly nerve-tugging score as he always does, Frederick Elmes also making good on delivering the same kind of thoroughly spooky and seductive cinematography that marked Blue Velvet. Gifford co-writing the screenplay with Lynch probably accounts for the film being one of the director’s more accessible ventures but, even then, it is still sonically, visually and narratively bonkers, as is only proper.

Wild at Heart had a middling reception upon release from Lynch fans and detractors alike, many finding it to be too unsubtle and wacky when compared to his efforts that burned slowly and contrasted normative worlds with perverse underbellies, everyone and everywhere being batshit loony here. I’ve always found it to be a bold and magnetic cinematic document. It’s very funny, counterintuitively heartfelt, exciting, scary and singularly weird, without a false note. If you’re part of the uninitiated, I’d say you’re in for a real treat.

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