'Wild at Heart' Is David Lynch's Exuberant Circus of Romance and Violence

Compared to David Lynch's bleak take on fate and human nature in, say, Eraserhead or Lost Highway, this is sunshine and sailboats -- albeit with plenty of vivid sex, violence, and twisted humor.

Wild At Heart

Rated: R
Director: David Lynch
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Willem Dafoe, Harry Dean Stanton
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
Year: 1990
Distributor: Kino Lorber
US DVD release date: 2015-04-28

In the dark circus of David Lynch’s feature films, none of his work occupies quite the same ring as his 1990 Palme d’Or winner Wild at Heart. An extravagant mix of pop culture theatrics, vivid sex and violence, and sly, twisted humor, Wild at Heart touches on many of Lynch’s favored themes and visual signatures: dark secrets and self-conscious weirdness, sudden bursts of brutality and lip-synching, close-ups of matches and fire, and physically disabled supporting characters. Based on the novel by Barry Gifford, and co-written by Gifford and Lynch, all of this rolls into a singular whole that is as divisive in its eccentricities as it is invigorating in its flamboyant energy.

Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern star as Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune, a young couple drenched in their love for each other, much to the dismay of Marietta, Lula’s crazed harridan of a mother, played by Diane Ladd. After Sailor finishes a stint in jail for the skull-splitting murder of a man Marietta hired to kill him, he and Lula seek escape and take to the road to find happiness together, pursued by Marietta’s ostensible boyfriend, private detective Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton). Guided by Marietta, his instructions are to kill Sailor and bring Lula back home to mommy.

There are also not one, but two sinister crime bosses with ties to both Sailor and Marietta (J.E. Freeman and W. Morgan Sheppard). There's the gimpy hired assassin Juana Durango and her bleach-blonde daughter, Perdita (Grace Zabriskie and Isabella Rosselini). Most memorably, there's the greasy, squirm-inducing thug Bobby Peru, played by Willem Dafoe with gleefully trashy relish and teeth that look like they’ve been chewing on a mix of cancerous beef jerky and cinderblocks. Crispin Glover has an unforgettable cameo as a madman with roaches in his underpants. Oh yeah, it’s a circus.

But oh, what an entertaining circus it is. Lynch has never been accused of subtlety or straightforwardness, and here, he ramps up the baroque extravagance and pop culture pastiche to a fever pitch, somehow keeping aloft all the spinning plates of excess and scenery-chewing. The mood of unsettling exuberance is helped out by a choice selection of pop songs (Chris Isaak, Powermad, Them) and a score from Lynch’s favorite composer Angelo Badalamenti, whose music deftly modulates on a continuum between lush romanticism and deliberately strident horror-movie string interjections.

Woven in alongside that aforementioned bleak, sly sense of humor and the heated eroticism of Lula and Sailor’s sex scenes, are cheeky Wizard of Oz references that posit Sailor and Lula as simple travelers on a different sort of journey, a road trip down the flip-side of that hallucinogenic yellow brick highway. This nervy concept culminates in a bizarrely satisfying deus ex machina ending that has to be seen to be believed.

But despite the violence and sociopathic behavior on display, this is also one of Lynch’s most humane, upbeat films -- if a film with a dog running off with a freshly severed hand in its mouth can be said to be upbeat. Sailor and Lula’s road trip is a deeply romantic fantasy diverted only temporarily by flying monkey interlopers, and their battered faith in their love and mutual goodness is rewarded in the end. Justice is meted out to most, if not all, of the evildoers, and the credits roll over a version of “Love Me Tender.” Compared to Lynch's bleak take on fate and human nature in, say, Eraserhead or Lost Highway, this is sunshine and sailboats.

Cage is perfectly cast as the hard-luck, poor-decision Sailor, his particular style of manic energy and smooth-faced charm pleasantly married to a series of Elvis-like tics, gestures and vocal mannerisms. He even sings two Elvis songs. Dern has never bettered her uninhibited turn here as the spry, golden-hearted sexpot Lula, all long legs and heedless desire.

It’s saying something about the tone and tenor of Wild at Heart that Dean Stanton, of all people, is the model of acting restraint, serving as a counterbalance to Diane Ladd’s daredevil ferocity. With her claw-like Wicked Witch of the West nails, her wild-eyed, feral intensity, and her heedless application of both lipstick and histrionics, Ladd takes it all the way up to 11 -- 12, maybe. Her Oscar-nominated performance is surely the litmus test that will most likely set viewers into one of the camps of love-it or hate-it.

Lynch filmed Wild at Heart while on break from his legendary TV series Twin Peaks, and cast many of the show’s stars in supporting roles. Along with Zabriskie as the leg-braced killer Durango, fans will also recognize series regulars Sherilyn Fenn, Jack Nance and David Patrick Kelly. There's also Laura Palmer herself, Sheryl Lee, as the familiar good witch in the bubble.

This DVD release from Kino Lorber features a nice set of extras, including a making-of documentary and featurette, Lynch commenting on the DVD process, extended interviews with cast and crew, a profile of Lynch, the original theatrical trailer and TV spots.

If you’re inclined to learn more about some of the characters here, Wild at Heart earned a sequel of sorts -- 1997’s Perdita Durango (aka Dance With the Devil), directed by Alex de la Iglesia and starring Rosie Perez and Javier Bardem. But start here, with original; the ringmaster would approve.

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