#10 in my definitive ranking of David Lynch’s films.
This is probably the most extreme example of the combination of wildly variant tones that David Lynch revels in. Adapted from the novel by Barry Gifford, Wild at Heart is a combination of Badlands, The Wizard of Oz, and Blue Velvet thrown into a blender and set on the highest setting. Made during the production of Twin Peaks‘ original run, it shares a similar embrace of soap opera conventions to an extreme, putting it somewhere on the border between straight telling of a story within the genre, homage, and satire.
It is the story of Sailor and his girlfriend Lula, taking a road trip after Sailor gets out of jail after several years for the killing of a man who pulled a knife on him at the behest of Lula’s mother, Marietta. Driving away from Cape Fear, North Carolina and breaking parole, Sailor gets pursued by several assassins hired by Lula because Sailor may know some terrible secret from Marietta’s past since Sailor was once the driver to Santos, a local gangster she has a relationship with. My central problem with the movie is that Sailor and Lula’s story barely intersects with the majority of Marietta’s story for the large bulk of the movie’s run time.
This represents one of the real joys of Lynch’s work in general, and some issues that keep individual works operating in the microcosm. This film is packed full of interesting characters with wild performances from each of them, but a shocking number of them end up being completely excisable in terms of the central story of Sailor and Lula’s romance. This starts with Harry Dean Stanton’s Johnnie, a wannabe lover of Marietta’s and private detective. He’s the first Marietta sends out after Sailor and Lula, and Marietta immediately sends Santos out afterwards. Johnnie never gets to Sailor or Lula, tracking them to New Orleans before Santos’ plan to have Johnnie killed comes to fruition. And Johnnie isn’t killed by Santos or an act of God but by three very distinctive characters (Juana, Reggie, and Dropshadow) who then disappear from the movie. Made all the more curious by the film’s desire to be knowingly unpleasant with ultraviolent images, this large section of the movie feels like an unnecessary detour to underline what the rest of the movie already does but concentrating on our actual main characters.
The stuff around Johnnie is extreme and the sort of stuff this movie was made for, but because it ends up so tenuous to Sailor and Lula’s central story I end up with a problem with it beyond the uncomfortable and unpleasant nature of the material itself. On top of it all, Diane Ladd as Marietta plays her so over the top while, again, feeling tangential to the story for such a long stretch, that she draws attention to herself in ways that seem inappropriate for the story. This would be like Frank Booth in Blue Velvet threatening one of his henchmen for 30 minutes, killing the henchman, and then just continuing on with his role in the story, his henchman having contributed nothing. Yes, we would see more of Frank being an evil bastard, but we get plenty of that from his interactions with Jeffrey and Dorothy.
Anyway, Sailor and Lula spend most of the movie having no idea that they’re being chased which is interesting as impending doom approaches them and they don’t realize it. Their dreams of a new life in California seem so open ended and optimistic as they leave Cape Fear, breaking Sailor’s parole in the process. Through New Orleans they are happy, constantly making love as they have nothing but themselves, the road, and their music. Nicolas Cage, who plays Sailor in a perpetual Elvis Presley imitation, beats up a punk in a night club who gets too close to Lula and then proceeds to sing “Love Me” to her as the entire crowd stops to watch them in an artificial display meant to demonstrate the artificiality of their current circumstance. They’re high on a dream, and it cannot last.
However, while they never know that assassins are coming their way, their dream falls apart anyway (another reason I feel like all the stuff around Johnnie just takes up screen time). This mostly becomes apparent as they’re driving through Texas and come across the remnants of a crash. Two dead men lay in the car, alone on the abandoned stretch of highway, and they meet the last survivor, played by Sherilyn Fenn, who is disorientated, looking for her purse, and eventually just lays down and dies. The fairy tale is becoming evidently a fairy tale as death enters their lives, even tangentially.
The final bulk of the film takes place in the tiny, out of the way town of Big Tuna, Texas where Lula needs to take a break from their trip. There they meet Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru, with a creepy set of teeth and an odd speech pattern. He’s the most exciting thing to happen to Big Tuna in a long time, and he takes an immediate shine to Sailor, inviting him on a small robbery where they can get some quick cash. Concerned with the potential for things to go wrong, but needing the cash, Sailor goes along only to discover that Bobby Peru is the other hitman that Marietta sent after him.
And I just want to take a step back to imagine this movie a bit differently. Let’s say that we know that Marietta has sent someone out to get Sailor, but we don’t follow any one of them. Instead, we keep our tight focus on Lula and Sailor as their vision for their future gets eroded by the violent world around them. Reaching their lowest point, Sailor decides to take up with an extreme individual for a heist that will get him cash to keep moving towards California and their dream, but it turns out that it’s their past catching up with them. Now, all of that is in the movie, but it gets sidetracked for long stretches by these other characters that Lynch had grown to love. I want to love this movie because the core of it is actually really, really good.
The movie’s final ten minutes is some of my favorite that Lynch ever made. Sailor comes home after several years in jail for breaking his parole and taking part in a robbery. He meets his son for the first time, and he realizes that he shouldn’t be with Lula because she’s done better without him than with him. Visited by the Good Witch (played by Sheryl Lee), Sailor decides that he needs to fight for what he loves. It sounds corny, and when you combine it with the hyper-stylized melodramatic tone of the overall piece it is always dangerously close to delving into parody, but somehow Lynch manages to stick the landing. It’s a wonderful ending, a romantic one that gives our two main characters a deserved future together.
I don’t know what to think of Dianne Ladd in this film. She’s extreme, at one point painting her entire face with lipstick while talking on the phone, and it could have been interesting if her part were more central. Most of the time she’s doing this weird stuff alone on the phone, and being so removed from every other character for most of the time she feels less dangerous than Frank Booth did. She ends up feeling more like a distraction to the story after a certain point.
I’m much more mixed on this film than I want to be. I think that Lynch’s love of his characters and actors works against the film in this instance where he goes on tangents that don’t affect much for long stretches instead of focusing on the surprisingly strong central romance. Would this movie be better at about 20 minutes shorter simply cutting out Harry Dean Stanton (no one should ever have to consider cutting Harry Dead Stanton from a movie, ever)? Maybe.
Originally published here.