Film Review: Wild at Heart

A still from the film Wild At Heart.

Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) take a respite from their highway to hell.

Wild At Heart, 1990

Written and Directed by David Lynch

There’s something small that Lynch does better than many other writers, and I think it’s a lynchpin to his work. Two people have a moment of relative quiet, in which one is carrying an anxious trauma. It is the bubbling point of a secret, the ones that expose how American romantics internalize dismissing reality to maintain the status quo which created it. Finally, the other no longer allows their behavior. It’s a moment where one character calmly explains to the other that they, with whatever decency they may carry, will listen to their problem and that they will find a way to figure it out together.

Often, Lynch’s works even seem to focus on what happens when these characters never refuse, ultimately chaining both of their lives into darker, bloodier circumstance until someone reaches untimely demise. Ultimately, it’s the display of those events that earn the “iconic” value; the darkness, the abstract and symbolic nature, the interstitial comedy, or the sexual politics that get things labeled “Lynchian.” But those things are true of the Coen Brothers, of Fellini, of some “New Hollywood” films. Lynch’s specificity is for turning off the irony of “parody,” the exploitation of “darkness,” and the absurdity of “abstraction” when somebody needs something and somebody simply wants to stop seeing someone in pain.

This happens with Harry Dean Stanton’s Johnny Farragut and Diane Ladd’s Marietta Fortune. It happens again a bit later with Nicolas Cage’s Sailor and Laura Dern’s Lula, the ostensible stars (and certainly protagonists) of the film, when they briefly meet the Sherilyn Fenn character. You’d be forgiven for not noticing the latter time, as Wild at Heart might be especially distracting for Twin Peaks fans; you can practically begin to count the cameos, and superfans can begin to count the overlapping references between the two in SWERY’s Deadly Premonition. Ironically, the cameos don’t generally overlap with Fire Walk With Me, and they are cameos, existing on the weirder, “wilder” outskirts of Wild at Heart.

Lynch’ “weirdness,” has two sides, though, and they seem to center around his original muse, Jack Nance. Eraserhead and Twin Peaks have quite a bit in common that is wildly distinct from something like Bobby Peru or Frank Booth. There’s a lack of sense, a raw emotional stream of consciousness. And Jack Nance’s cameos seem to steal these other films because they have this dream logic to them; he arrives to spew non-thoughts that are emphasized for their supposed strangeness. They are the emblems of these films’ best moments. The abstraction finally reaches a proper use, with silent dancing, intense evil, and a sort of darkness that isn’t a comprehensible iniquity of man. It’s lonelier, sadder, more confused. The men who exact this evil (and with the possible exception of Laura Palmer’s domme posturing, it is always men) do not want to be this way any longer.

Perhaps this confusion comes when these men need someone for too long with nobody around to make them uncork. With Frank Booth, this is the source of his evil. But, and perhaps this is what Twin Peaks was always about, it often comes from the hands of men like Bobby Peru, who exacted this evil without ever feeling the regret that comes alongside. BOB (isn’t that funny?,) then, is a corrupting influence moreso than an evil spirit, one that unquestioningly inflicts trauma until it convinces its victim to pass the evil along. And, without spoiling anything, there are men in Twin Peaks who inflict that sort of evil without remorse, only beginning to question their results when their misfortunes begin to pile high.

Wild at Heart leans more heavily on the more quickly defined Lynchian weirdness; the one that he maybe doesn’t operate with the same skill as the Coen Brothers, with comedy undercutting acts of serious darkness and use of flashbacks, odd coloration, and intensely exaggerated gender politics. Its abstract elements just seem misplaced and arbitrary rather than really effective. As opposed to Blue Velvet, its throwback “50s” nostalgia seems more like a framing device than an effective tool, and its framing reference, “The Wizard of Oz,” is only for those who wanted more corn in their pop cinema. The actual 50s throwback tunes work better than the rest, as do the criminals; the repeatedly mentioned Bobby Peru isn’t half bad, and many of its side characters are actually quite good.

What’s to be said, overall, about Wild at Heart? What can be said swiftly? Cage is pretty good; Dern is given a tough role and doesn’t fail it, but you won’t like either one of the characters. It features writ large the plot of Marietta Fortune, bizarrely discarded. It’s weird to watch Dafoe play a numbskull. I didn’t generally find it entertaining or sexy, but it certainly is entertaining on occasion. Mostly, it’s just grim, though not as grim nor as intense as Fire Walk With Me.

Ebert complains about these films as exploitative, mean, and then accuses them of laughing it off as a sense of parody. I don’t think that Lynch is aiming for that sort of mean spirited smirk. But these films have too much darkness (more explicitly, it’s altogether too much violent, explicit rape and depictions of patriarchal oppression that border for many on the misogynistic) for the characters to smile as much as the film expects, so the curl of the lips only pulls as far as the first two or three teeth. If he were to restrain the darkness a bit, as he was forced to do in his television series long before Engels and Peyton brought in the tap-dancing Civil War Reenactment, or he were to let the characters consider this darkness with more sober reflection, it wouldn’t just be more palatable; it’d give the work even more to chew upon, elevating what is interesting and unpleasant to the fascinatingly sublime.


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