For most of David Lynch‘s filmography, he focused on the dark and troubling things happening in a version of the world that should by all accounts be wholesome and cheerful.
Clearly he sees the idyllic as a mask for seediness. Eraserhead was about the horror of the mundane and responsible; Dune, for all its faults, focused on a young man living up to expectations; and Blue Velvet dove into the darkness behind the veneer of cheery, picket-fenced suburbia. And then there’s Twin Peaks. But of maybe all of his work, no film proclaimed the power of youthful, reckless love quite like 1990’s Wild At Heart.
As is perhaps insanely fitting, Wild At Heart is also one of Lynch’s darkest and most brutal films, and not least because, unlike Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet, the characters in Wild At Heart do not dwell in a happy, wholesome environment, but begin on the edges of hell and merely travel further in. The lead couple of Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) are brought up in a bad place to bad parents and are involved with bad stuff, and through their sheer, unwavering passion for each other, they spend the movie searching for the wholesome, for what’s over the rainbow.
The film opens with Sailor beating a man to death, and rather than be the catalyst for some kind of strife between he and his beloved, we then cut immediately to the end of his two year stint (it was self-defense, it was ruled) to show Lula picking him up from prison. We quickly learn it was Lula’s mother Marietta (Diane Ladd) who hired the man to try to kill Sailor. Marietta hates Sailor, on the surface because she says he’s bad for Lula, but truly because Sailor rebuked Marietta’s own advances. Marietta spends the entire movie sending people to kill Sailor, through various southern fried mobster and gangland types, resulting in some of the film’s bleakest and most upsetting scenes.
First, Marietta hires her reasonable, level-headed, and stupidly devoted boyfriend, private detective Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), to find the kids when they skip town, but she knows Johnnie has a soft spot for Sailor and so hires her other boyfriend, the vile psychopath Marcello Santos (J.E. Freeman) to kill Sailor, which Santos then takes as leave to kill Johnnie too. One of the movie’s most terrifying scenes finds Johnnie captured by Juana (Grace Zabriskie), Reggie (Calvin Lockwood), and Dropshadow (David Patrick Kelly), a trio of sadistic assassins in New Orleans, who get sexual gratification through murder. This bad decision (to put it mildly) sends Marietta into a guilt spiral that makes her even more unhinged.
And while this makes up the bulk of the film’s plot, Sailor and Lula know almost nothing about it until the end. They spend most of their screen time driving from city to city, making love in crappy hotels, dancing in crappy bars, and talking about their weird pasts. (Lula’s story about her deranged cousin Dell, played by Crispin Glover, is one of the movie’s most memorable scenes.) They seem hellbent on ignoring the world and living in a state of perpetual, childlike bliss, even refusing to tell each other the dark parts of their own story (Lula’s sexual assault, Sailor’s history of criminal activity). The chemistry between Cage and Dern drips from the screen as Sailor serenades her with throaty renditions of Elvis hits while alternately gyrating to thrash metal.
Reality doesn’t start crashing down around them until they happen upon a horrible car accident off a dark, secluded highway. They witness a girl (Sherilyn Fenn) with a massive head wound search for her purse before seizing and passing away. This omen follows Sailor and Lula for the rest of the movie, and Lula discovers she’s pregnant just as they reach Big Tuna, TX, with no more money and nowhere to go. Enter Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), the sleaziest and most psychotic character in the whole movie, who convinces Sailor to help him rob a feed shop for some quick cash, after threatening Lula for no reason other than asserting power.
It’s Big Tuna that threatens the romance seemingly written in the stars, and the fire imagery Lynch uses for the film’s first two thirds goes away. Fittingly, while we’ve seen many scenes of Sailor and Lula in bed together, limbs intertwined in the afterglow of intense physical love, the last scene of this nature in the movie finds the pair each on a different edge of the hotel bed, unsure of the future. Despite all the over-the-top violence and menace which seems to be all around them, it’s them losing faith in each other and themselves together that is the real threat.
Lynch–who adapted Barry Gifford’s novel himself–seems to love this couple as much as they love each other. In typical Lynch fashion, the world of Wild At Heart is populated by the bizarre and macabre, but Sailor and Lula are quaint in their eccentricities, and this is, again, after we see Sailor brutally beat a man to death with his own hands. The fire I mentioned before is a light and a heat that can’t be put out by anything as long as the couple are together and strong. Strip away all the Lynchiness, the story is a fairy tale romance, modeled on The Wizard of Oz and the like.
And unlike Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, the ending of Wild At Heart isn’t disturbing, it’s reaffirming. The power of love wins out, even if there’s violence and depravity along the way. It’s sweet when David Lynch does romance.
Wild At Heart is on Blu-ray now from Shout! Factory as part of their Shout Select series.