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If Blue Velvet enabled David Lynch to dig into his personal fantasies about a sordid middle-American underworld, 1990's Wild At Heart let him go wild with stylistic excess, in a tale of oversexed lovers on the run. 1990 was the same year that Lynch's great TV series Twin Peaks made its debut. With its similarly fractured structure, Wild At Heart introduces dozens of characters that by all rights could spin off in their own series, or inhabit sidebar stories in an endless miniseries of operatic sleaze. David Lynch doesn't do things by half measures, and the obsessions that propel his best movies can generate fascinating, squeamish playgrounds of the unconscious. 1
I know standard measures don't apply with Lynch, but he revels in sex content (mostly verbal, actually) of perfectly awful taste. When Wild At Heart creates a sense of danger or unease, it works like a charm. Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern's rock 'n' roll- fueled erotic hysteria is purposely overstated, stylized to resemble a new kind of raw-nerve theater. And Diane Ladd and Willem Dafoe approach their roles like creatures from another dramatic dimension. I don't think Wild At Heart adds up to as strong an experience as some of Lynch's other pictures, but when the end credits roll it definitely feels as if we've been on a major amusement park ride. The audience I saw it with in 1990 ate up every outrageous bit of extreme content.
Describing the plot of Wild At Heart can't possibly convey its brightly colored outlaw-chic attitude. Lovers Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune (Nicolas Cage & Laura Dern) are separated when he goes to prison for the manslaughter of Bob Ray Lemon (Gregg Dandridge), a killer hired by Lula's alcoholic-nymphomaniac-psychotic mother Marietta (Diane Ladd). Lula thinks her mother wants Sailor dead to break up their relationship, but Sailor knows that Lula and mobster Marcelles Santos (J.E. Freeman) want him dead because he witnessed the murder of Lula's husband -- by fire. Out on parole, Sailor and Lula embark on a sex and dancing spree in a black Thunderbird convertible, headed for California. Marietta sics the gullible private detective Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) onto Sailor. Johnnie is so gone on Marietta that he doesn't realize she's two-timing him. Marietta also asks Marcelles to kill Sailor Ripley, which brings in a spider's nest of horrid underworld freaks: the perverse ganglord Mr. Reindeer (W. Morgan Sheppard), who lives with a dozen female concubines; sick killer Juana Durango and her more sympathetic sister Perdita Durango (Grace Zabriskie & Isabella Rossellini); Juana's lover-assassin Reggie (Calvin Lockhart). Marietta has no control over Santos' horrid associates. Lula and Sailor meet a rogues' gallery of drifters, perverts and weirdos on the road, including a female survivor of a car accident (Sherilyn Fenn). Sailor has visions of Marietta as the Wicked Witch of the West, and another of the Good Witch (Sheryl Lee). When they run out of money in a small Texas town they stop off at a motel inhabited by more human cockroaches. The worst is the frighteningly perverse Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), a porn actor with no teeth, who threatens Lula with rape and then entices Sailor into an ill-advised payroll robbery with Perdita Durango.
First things first: viewers must come to terms with Nicolas Cage's channeling of Elvis Presley for Wild At Heart. He even sings a couple of Presley songs, one of them in near-standard Movie Musical format. I'm not sure whether Cage's acting stock is selling high or low these days, but one can never accuse him of holding anything back. Lynch's dialogue and direction demands a go-for-broke personality like Cage. Most everything Sailor Ripley says is an arch comic book- type of statement, and he reads normal dialogue in the same overemphatic way. His snakeskin jacket, he tells us, "represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom." Lula and Sailor have no inhibitions about sex and discuss their various intimate functions at length, getting excited by the words themselves. They're a long way from 'innocent lovers on the run', but Lynch's screenplay gives them every benefit of the doubt. The film's style is pitched at full intensity, at an operatic level of overstatement. The crazy Marietta is typically seen losing all self-control as she wails into a telephone receiver, frustrated that her desires aren't being fulfilled. At one point she takes red lipstick and marks her wrists as if symbolically cutting them. Then she smears the red all over her face, reminding us of the various bloody victims that crop up here and there in the shaggy narrative.
David Lynch puts the danger back in profanity. He could easily make the boast in his promotional materials that he's making the American F-word mean something again. Willem Dafoe's Bobby Peru all but oozes visible slime. He's genuinely scary, as opposed to Dennis Hopper's neurotic 'Mr. Tantrum' in Blue Velvet. Filling in the gaps in Lynch's freak-show landscape are a dozen bizarro characters, several played by Lynch veterans: Jack Nance, Freddie Jones, Grace Zabriskie. When Lula regales Sailor with ultra-traumatic flashbacks to a childhood directly from Hell, we also enjoy the participation of Marvin Kaplan and Crispin Glover.
Dogs have a strange place in the dialogue and one also works into a sick dismemberment joke. The director also gives the gorehounds their money's worth with a spectacular decapitation. Lynch successfully hypes the energy level with this crazy cast of freakoids - seeing Freddie Jones quack like Donald Duck is as weird as weird gets. But I'm not sure that the hyper-sentimental finish is anything but a slick way to wrap up a story with 1,0001 loose ends... I mean, there needs to be a Wild At Heart 2 to resolve the wicked ways of Marietta and Santos, just for starters. The score for Wild At Heart is: Lynch Regulars A+, the Adventurous Curious B+/A-, and a dire health warning to all fans of Little House on the Prairie.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Wild At Heart is a stunning HD transfer of a movie with a really classy surface sheen. Whether we're looking at desert landscapes, smoky nightclubs or vomit on the floor, these images have been recorded with great care and skill. The design and art direction comes across, too. Neither Dern nor Cage come off as dated, although Dern seems to have over-used one adolescent hand-on-head pose chosen for dramatic moments. Twilight Time socks the music to us as well. The tune that yanked me back to 1990 is Chris Isaak's Wicked Game ... although I kept waiting for his vocal to pop up.
Besides its Isolated Music & Effects track, Twilight also carries over a raft of extras from MGM's 2004 DVD release. Actors from the film discuss its production and possible interpretations as well as David Lynch's way of doing things in several featurettes and extended interviews. Four TV spots, a trailer and an original 1990 EPK featurette are present. David Lynch talks about the transfer, even though he's actually referring to the 2004 DVD release!
I always wait to read Julie Kirgo's fine liner note essays, to prevent unconsciously stealing her informed facts and sound insights. She touches on the source book and reminds us that the show is basically a love story. Provided one likes movies, even a timid soul can find plenty of interest in Wild At Heart, as opposed to the see-it-once-and-try-to-forget-it Natural Born Killers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Wild At Heart Blu-ray rates:
1. Actually, original author Barry Gifford had the same idea in mind ... the character Perdita Durango reappears in other stories. She's played by Rosie Perez in a 1997 Álex de la Iglesia movie of the same name.
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T'was Ever Thus.