Wild at Heart Movie Review

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Was there any film so anxiously awaited in the late 1980s and early 1990s as Wild at Heart? The picture was released to a cult that had just been born: that of its director, David Lynch, whose Blue Velvet, in 1986, had reaped an enthusiastic following among the mainstream hipsters who had missed Eraserhead in 1977, and whose budding appetite for Lynch's singular brand of the macabre had been whetted by the prime-time ghoulishness of 1990's Twin Peaks. Wild at Heart's Palme d'Or win at Cannes just before its 1990 release only tantalized more; and after what seemed for Lynch's starving fans a nearly eternal wait, the film opened at last to high expectations, but decidedly mixed reviews.

Wild at Heart was puzzling, because it was screwed up and it was hard to figure out why. Time - and, 14 years later, the DVD release - helps to clear up that central enigma. Based very loosely on Barry Gifford's novel, this manic, Southern Gothic road movie now seems too deliberately weird. And in retrospect the cause seems to be that its creator, a strange man if the available evidence of his films is to be believed, and one who then was only recently revered as a certain type of genius, was trying so hard just to be himself.

Wild at Heart maps the flight of Sailor (Nicholas Cage) and his beloved Lula (Laura Dern) from the violent minions of Lula's mad-as-a-hatter mother (Dern's real life mother, Diane Ladd) who has vowed to keep them apart. If that synopsis sounds fairly straightforward, be assured that Lynch compensates for this seeming regularity elsewhere. Besides a kind of framing device that links the film at key moments to The Wizard of Oz, Wild at Heart boasts a cast of characters and scenes of violence that compete well against any screen weirdness ever presented anywhere.

Examples are bountiful. We have a character named Mr. Reindeer, played by W. Morgan Stanley, whose lines are delivered from a toilet seat, and Isabella Rossellini, hair dyed unevenly blonde, as a mysterious piece of white trash named Perdita Durango. A dog appears (Lynch regular Jack Nance has a thing or two to say about this dog) that highly prizes the human hand it comes into possession of following one of the film's particularly violent passages. We find Diane Ladd (in a tremendously unspooled performance) applying a tube of lipstick to her entire face, beginning at the mouth. There is Twin Peaks star Sheryl Lee portraying the Good Witch of the West. And so on.

Other Lynch outings have gone as far as Wild at Heart does. But this film feels more disjointed and strange than, say, Mulholland Drive, even as it makes better linear sense. And this isn't a rewarding strangeness or disjointedness I'm talking about, either; rather, Wild at Heart feels belabored, and it lacks the resonance and power with which the best, most unfiltered passages of Lynch's work vibrate. Wild at Heart aspires to bring something raw to the American iconography it plugs into; it conjures the spirit of Elvis in Nicolas Cage's performance and Marilyn's in Laura Dern's, it unreels itself in New Orleans and Texas, it surveys American musical idioms on its soundtrack, and it does it all with The Wizard of Oz buzzing in the background like a TV that's always left on. But the rawness Lynch brings to this American journey - the violence and fire and kinky sexuality - feels like something that's been applied to it, when it needs to feel like something that's grown out of it instead.

But the David Lynch film with nothing to offer is a David Lynch film I haven't yet seen, and Wild at Heart finds a way to keep the car on the road despite some ruts and uneven surfaces - and despite all the weird shit happening on the shoulders, too.

The new DVD includes innumerable featurettes about the film and several interviews with Lynch.

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Wild at Heart Rating

" Weak "

Rating: R, 1990


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