David Lynch is a frustrating dude.
Take it from someone who took approximately 37 viewings before he could appreciate Mullholland Dr. Like Lynch’s masterpiece, Wild at Heart is filled with that trademark “WTF” factor. Lynch’s direction is hyper-stylized, demanding actors go from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds; emotions are stilted or melodramatic, and often in moments you wouldn’t expect.; the sound of a phone hitting the receiver booms like a dynamite explosion; a house band stops playing at the drop of a pin. Wild at Heart plays a lot like a fever dream, especially given those flourishes to what is a very simple story.
After brutally killing a man who attacked him, local ruffian and Elvis enthusiast Sailor (Nicolas Cage) gets locked up in the clink, much to the despair of his gangly, spirited lover Lula (Laura Dern). Lula’s mother, Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd, and Dern’s actual mother) wants Sailor to stay in jail or even better, stay dead — probably because of all that violent pointing Sailor does. So Marietta does what any supporting mother would and sends a motley crew of hired guns to take Sailor out. Not taking any chances, Sailor and Lula skip town for New Orleans, hoping to avoid the likes of private eye Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), gangster Marcellus Santos (J.E. Freeman) and most feared of all, Willem Dafoe’s pencil mustache.
Much of Lynch’s Wild at Heart is really about how it’s telling itself rather than what it’s saying, and it often suffers from his insistence on personal touches. There’s no bigger giveaway than Lynch’s insistance on changing the original ending in Barry Gifford’s 1989 novel. Sure, the Elvis homages add some “fuck you” bravado to road film escapism, and yes, the Wizard of Oz references allow for an clever inversion of Dorothy’s slipper-tapping in a story about leaving home. But so very little of it is needed, leaving the inessential bits — the hypersexualized one-off characters or a severe overuse of lipstick — to feel Lynch’s eccentric window dressing, not illuminating subtext.
Then again, Wild at Heart offers some faceted dimensions of the interplay between violence and romance, a much more successful effort than the sophomoric likes of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Dern and Cage share a raucous duality in their love-making, and really, their entire relationship les dangereux. Dern taps into that tension between sensual frailty and sexual empowerment. She’s precise with a simple brush of her curly mane or in the clenching of fingernails against a bed sheet. It’s no wonder that Dern and Lynch collaborated again following Blue Velvet.
More so, Cage might be the perfect acting specimen for a Lynch film. His propensity for shifting from loud to soft, from tender to violent is on full display. There’s an explosiveness to Cage’s Sailor, one that might feel campy in Vampire’s Kiss or overblown in Matchstick Men, but sits right at home with Lynch’s own bipolarity. Cage’s talents in Wild at Heart are never more perfectly on display than at a club, where Lula and Sailor celebrate the end of his sentence with the traditional speed metal concert. As the pair tear it up to the soulful screams of Powermad, a poor soul tries rubbing up against Lula. Sailor takes control. Then he takes the mic.
Like anything Cage commits to, he gives his 150% dedication to the moshing and fist pumping and a seething half-in, half-out Elvis drawl. It’s weird and garbled and oddly fantastic. Sailor is a ball of machismo and PCP, a Jailhouse Rock enthusiast who’s pretty damn strong on the mic when he needs to be. As I’ve written countless times before, under the proper directorial control, Cage can be cool and commanding, and that’s everything Lynch needs him to be here. The entire room stops in awe of Sailor, but part of that might be in awe of Cage’s talent.
It’s great setup for its actors, but Wild at Heart never excuses itself for why it wants to mash up speed metal with smalltown Americana, cerebral primalism with Glinda ex Machina. Lynch’s fatal flaw might be simply knowing when to get out of his own way. If only by comparison, as his lead actor has shown time and again, less is more.
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