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The Lynch Ledger-Entry Five: Wild at Heart (1990)

Possibly where David lost his mainstream followers for good. Ironically, he was actually at the peak of his powers by this point. But it soon all came tumbling down in a heap. Released in between the wildly popular, abbreviated first season of television’s “Twin Peaks”, and its soon to premiere second, “Wild at Heart” was dumped into the laps of the masses here in North America in August of 1990. Audiences already found David Lynch strange, but he was officially a hit with his small screen triumph, and “Wild at Heart” arrived sporting a Palme d’Or win from the 1990 Cannes Film Festival. But barely anyone went to see it, and it grossed a paltry 14.5 million dollars by the end of its theatrical run. Now, in fairness, that tally almost doubled what “Blue Velvet” garnered four years prior, and that 1986 release was a huge critical smash—despite some notable detractors(R.I.P., Mr. Ebert). But “Wild at Heart” should’ve been bigger after that rousing acceptance of “Twin Peaks”, right? You would think. However, with its violent imagery(Lynch had to make some subtle cuts to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating), mixed with its bizarre characters(David’s now typical collection of the disfigured, weirdo loners and outright caricatures), kept ticket buyers from biting. So, is “Wild at Heart” a good movie? Hell yes, it’s a good movie—a very good one. I was one of the few who saw it in a theater 24 years ago next month, and I adored it’s dirty, disturbing, “Wizard of Oz” in the desert, on-the-lam road trip—with Elvis and Marilyn. I’m still fond of “Wild at Heart” after my recent re watch. However, this is one David Lynch feature that is not holding up as well as others on the home screen.

Sailor Ripley(a fantastic Nicolas Cage, doing a full-throttle Elvis Presley)and Lula Fortune(an outrageously sexy Laura Dern, in a role apparently inspired by the iconography of Marilyn Monroe)are young North Carolina(Cape Fear, actually)lovers separated for a brief period, after Sailor is jailed for manslaughter. The brutal killing introduces us to Ripley, but we see it was self-defense, and therefore he receives a reduced sentence. Upon his release, Sailor and Lula, still passionately in love, decide to head off to California—which results in Sailor effectively breaking his parole. Furthermore, Lula’s borderline crazy mother(played by Dern’s actual  mom Diane Ladd, in a performance that would bring her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress), vehemently opposes the relationship(early in the movie, we find out why), and sends a couple of different men to retrieve them. One is private detective Johnnie Farragut(the indispensable Harry Dean Stanton), a sometimes boyfriend of Marietta, who she seductively convinces to locate the couple and bring them home. However, unbeknownst to Johnnie, Marietta also hires gangster Marcellus Santos. She urges Santos to kill Sailor, as Marietta is convinced that Ripley witnessed a heinous crime that could be linked to both her and the gangster. Meanwhile, as Sailor and Lula head across their desert version of the yellow-brick-road, they encounter a series of bizarre and dangerous characters, happen upon a fatal car accident, and are “followed” by the Wicked Witch of the West! Eventually, they meet the sardonic Bobby Peru(an astonishing Willem Dafoe), whose botched feed store robbery could ultimately decide Sailor and Lula’s fate.

I’ve got some issues with “Wild at Heart”, and I know right away where I’d like to begin. “Jingle” Dell. I’m not quite certain how to feel about “Jingle” Dell. That loony character(played to perfection, btw, by real life loony Crispin Glover)is a Christmas obsessed, sandwich-making, mental case that puts live cockroaches in his underpants for kicks. Hey, it was hilarious on the big screen back in 1990, but now it removes me from the narrative. I’m not at ease with its purpose, and it comes off as a throwaway gag. I am positive David has his reasons for including it, but it diverts me in 2014. It’s not hard for me to admit that it could be my failing, however.

Then there’s the crazy, leg-brace wearing Juana, as played by “Twin Peaks” crossover, Grace Zabriskie. Honestly, anyone who only knows Grace as George Costanza’s almost mother-in-law from the “Seinfeld” television series, would have their heads spun around watching her in “Wild at Heart”. A feral, sexual, screaming banshee of an assassin—she’s super-charged and terrifying. But again, her appearances have the effect of knocking me out of the frame. I’m aware that this jarring approach may very well be the point, but the device is too strong in your living room. But I ate it up in the theater.

However, I love the melancholy work of Harry Dean Stanton as Johnnie Farragut. He’s absolutely superb, in his first appearance in a Lynch feature(he moved on to roles in 1992’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me”, 1999’s “The Straight Story” and 2006’s “Inland Empire”). Stanton is a treasure. And Isabella Rossellini is sexy and mysterious as Perdita Durango, a character that would get her own non-Lynch, spin-off film(1997’s “Dance with the Devil”), starring Rosie Perez!

Bobby Peru. The sinister, rotten-toothed, outlaw embodied by an awesome Willem Dafoe. Bobby is a character that’s frightening even when he’s seemingly good-natured and joking around. And his near-rape encounter with Laura Dern’s Lula, in a vomit-stinking motel room, is a terrifyingly classic scene. Peru may have been inspired by Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth from “Blue Velvet”, but he creates an unforgettable character that easily stands alone. Is Dafoe ever not incredible?

Of course, the heart of the film is the Sailor/Lula/Marietta triumvirate, and all three performers are top-notch here. Dern does a complete 180 degree turn from her role as Sandy in 1986’s “Blue Velvet”, and literally burns a hole in the screen with her sexuality and nudity. And Cage is half cool and half volatile. Stopping a band’s playing with a raise of his hand like the Fonz, or bashing an attacker to the point where his brain leaks out of his skull, or tenderly kissing Lula while they’re facing each other upside down on a bed, or dancing with his lover frenetically in the arid desert. You’ll root for both of these charismatic and gorgeous young rebels. And Ladd absolutely pushes the envelope as Marietta. Screeching, slithering, feigning claws like a wild cat, caking her face in bright red lipstick—it’s a tour-de-force. It could be one of the great forgotten performances of that decade(Ladd lost the Academy Award to Whoopi Goldberg for “Ghost”!!!).

“Wild at Heart” is based on a novel by Barry Gifford, with a screenplay from David Lynch himself. The film still looks absolutely spectacular, so a nod to ace cinematographer, Frederick Elmes. There’s some beautiful and haunting music from Lynch regular, Angelo Badalamenti, and it’s interspersed with a selection of hard rock songs—as well as two Elvis favorites sung by Nicholas Cage! Chris Isaak also had a big hit with the somber “Wicked Game” on the soundtrack. There are cameos from a pair of “Twin Peaks” beauties, with Sherilyn Fenn playing a dying crash victim, and Sheryl Lee as Glinda the Good Witch(yes, the “Wizard of Oz” allusions, for better or worse, are constant)! So, “Wild at Heart” is often a mesmerizing ride. But its brutality has made it one of his most challenging works, in a career full of daring features. And note that with my coverage of “Wild at Heart”, we are officially halfway through the Lynch Ledger.     Grade:  B+, but it was a rockin’ A- when I first saw it in theaters   

next month’s Lynch Ledger Entry:  1992’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me”

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6 comments on “The Lynch Ledger-Entry Five: Wild at Heart (1990)

  1. Great review! I adore David Lynch and all the ways people relate to his work.

    • Thanks so much! And being that you appreciate David Lynch, be certain to stop back and visit my Lynch Ledger category. I’ll be covering all ten of his feature films once a month for the rest of 2014. Five have been published…five more to go. ML

      • Thanks! I’ll be sure to go and read back. Such a great project to take on, makes me want to re-watch his films myself but your review was so detailed so I felt like I was watching as I was reading 🙂

  2. Again…I so appreciate the kudos! I did a similar rundown with the films of David Cronenberg—my favorite director. The Cronenberg Chronicle category on my blog has all 18 of DC’s features already covered, and is awaiting #19(“Maps to the Stars”)later this year. The Lynch Ledger isn’t quite as sprawling…but it’s a labor of love all the same! ML

  3. Nice review Mark. I’ve never been able to engage with this film despite loving most of Lynch’s work; it has some startlingly jarring moments but the whole thing never cohered into anything substantial for my mind. I’ve given it two tries and will certainly give it a third at some point.

    • Thanks so much, Dave! It really is one of his more difficult “nuts” to crack. But, I highly recommend seeing it on the big screen, if you’re ever given the opportunity. It makes all the difference in the world. ML

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