Wild at Heart: Special Edition (1990)

I always felt incredibly safe with him as a director.
— Sheryl Lee, “Specific Spontaneity: Focus on Lynch”

Bubble gum was a key element to Lula, for some reason.
— David Lynch, “Love, Death, Elvis, and Oz: The Making of Wild at Heart

I’m making my lunch!
— Dell (Crispin Glover), Wild at Heart

“The most rewarding thing about working with David,” says the brilliant cinematographer Frederick Elmes, “is helping him see the vision through. You know it’s not going to be ordinary. You know it’s going to be unusual and it’s gonna rise above the other films, because David’s films have a particular point of view and it’s going to lift off the page in kind of a magical way. And we’re just there to make that happen for him.” Speaking for “Specific Spontaneity: Focus on Lynch,” one of several chatty documentaries assembled for the new Special Edition DVD of David Lynch’s magnificent Wild at Heart, Elmes expresses a sentiment apparently held by anyone who’s worked with the man — they’re moved to help make work that is peculiar, ingenious, and entirely thrilling.

Consider the blazing first scene in Wild at Heart. Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage), caught offguard on a stairway in Cape Fear, “Somewhere near the border between North and South Carolina,” is goaded into a horrific act of violence, literally slamming a black man’s head into pulp against a marble floor. Accompanied by a metal-ish guitar riff and his girlfriend Lula Fortune’s (Laura Dern) shrieks, Sailor doesn’t even hesitate, but pays pack her blood-red-finger-nailed mother Marietta (Diane Ladd), the ultimate source of the goading, by pointing his bloody finger over the corpse at her. It’s an incredible, ugly, unforgettable scene. And bold so as to ignite visceral responses: my own first experience with Wild at Heart was at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, when it inspired a loud mix of cheers and a few walk-outs at its premiere screening. Vital, complicated, gorgeous, and ferocious, it won that Palme d’Or winner.

Two years after this first two-minute scene, Sailor is released from Pee Dee Correctional Institution, where he’s served time for manslaughter. And Lula, the long-torsoed beauty also known as Peanut, arrives at the gate in her T-Bird convertible, bearing his precious snakeskin jacket. “Have I ever told you,” he asks, “that this jacket is a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom”” She shimmies in her sprayed-on black minidress, and adores him: “Only about 50,000 times!” And they’re off to a motel, where they engage in hot, burning-match hot, sex, their lusty passion for one another wholly visible and rather sweet (“You mark me the deepest,” Lula breathes to her lover, who appreciates the mystery of her mind as much as her ever-ready body). When a flashback reveals that Ms. Fortune in fact came on — drunkenly and aggressively — to Sailor back in the Cape Fear bathroom, the broadly conceived innocence of the couple is laid out. Marietta is determined to keep her daughter from Sailor (“Maybe my momma cares for me just a little too much”), as she informs Sailor in a sharply angled shot of the stall (the camera cutting to the toilet to remind you where you are). “You filthy piece a white trash,” he mutters, “You gonna have to kill me to keep me away from Lula.” Aha, she’s got him. “Don’t you worry about that: and before I do, I’m gonna cut your balls off and feed ’em to ya.” (Dern confesses that the film was something of a journey for her and her mother: “I’ll never need therapy again,” she laughs during one interview, “We’ve just played out all my demons.”)

The sheer brutality of Wild at Heart is, on occasion, breathtaking (and, as Roger Ebert, among others, has noted, it rehearses the misogyny of which Lynch is frequently accused — you might judge whether he’s exposing or perpetuating this particular cultural malady/norm). And yet its vulgarity has a flipside, revealing the devotion and naïve purity shared by the lovers, soon enough on the run to “sunny California,” as Wicked Witch of the East Marietta sends her trusting boyfriend Johnnie (Harry Dean Stanton), as well as some especially dreadful professionals to murder Sailor and recover her darling Lula. As inscrutable and contrary as any of Lynch’s films, this one is also unusually raw. In that, it exposes the dreamy-nightmarish underpinnings of Lynch’s logics. As Dern, who also worked with Lynch on Blue Velvet (1986), puts in it in “Specific Spontaneity,” the director is “not interested in defining them for himself, so I think it’s very amusing to him that people are trying to define him, because I don’t think he has an explanation for himself for his work or his creative process.” Lynch, in turn, calls her “the best actress I’ve ever worked with.” She is remarkable.

Several of the DVD’s other tidbits are arranged, appropriately, on a navigation page called “Dell’s Lunch Counter.” These comprise a selection of short documentaries, on topics ranging from “Cannes” (Lynch: “It’s a very special night when you present your film there”) and “The Snakeskin Jacket” (“Cage: “The characters that you remember more than any others are the ones that really have one wardrobe and they stick to it, it becomes their identity in effect”), to “Lula’s Momma” (Ladd: “I’m not gonna say that line here… Nick didn’t expect it and it certainly shook him up”). All this to say that the movie’s creative framework is as eccentric as you might expect from a project that combines themes and images from The Wizard of Oz, Westerns, gangster pictures, and damp melodrama — all U.S. cultural emblems, familiar and frightening.

In the “making of” featurette, Lynch describes the film, based on Barry Gifford’s rambunctious novel, as occurring in “kind of a hell world, with a lot of love between Sailor and Lula,” which makes theirs “an equals relationship,” surpassing any other in the film for generosity, compromise, and loyalty. “Treat me like a fool, treat me mean and cruel,” sings Sailor in Cage’s sappiest Elvis imitation, “But love me.” His hair hangs wet and sweaty over his face (he’s just beat down a guy who accidentally bumped Lula on the dance floor), and the girls surrounding him swoon and sway their hips as the soundtrack includes screechy-screaming sounds — the fantasy is specific and awful, a fusion of pop cultural memories and desires, vengeance and faith.

As Sailor and Lula share fiery sex scenes and perverse post-coital conversations about their future and the odd turns of Lula’s family, including Jingle Dell (played by Crispin Glover in flashbacks narrated by Lula), infamously overcome by fear of aliens, love of Christmas, and an obsession with sandwich-making). The road picture structure allows the couple a series of unrelated events, with dramatic cutaways to those freaks in increasingly impassioned pursuit, including a slippery gangster named Mr. Reindeer (W. Morgan Sheppard) and the slinky cruel killer, Santos (J.E. Freeman). All push and pull the lovers along the highways and back roads headed west, all the while surrounded by violence, implied and actual. During one seeming throwaway scene, Lula’s pushing buttons on the car radio while Sailor snoozes in the backseat, finally so frustrated by the bad news — murder, malice sex with the corpse, crocodiles eating corpses — that she pulls the car over and leaps out, demanding that Sailor find music on the tuner: “I never heard so much shit in all my life!”

The accumulation of their desire and evasion sends the couple reeling to Big Tuna, Texas (pop. 603), where Sailor seeks out Perdita Durango (Isabella Rossellini in a blond wig), to learn whether he’s been targeted by Marietta’s thugs (she has other information to reveal as well, crucial to Sailor’s mysterious, arson-plagued past). Sailor also takes up with the vile and brown-toothed Bobby Peru, described by Gifford as “the personification of evil” and played by Willem Dafoe, who recalls his experience with Lynch like so: “I was always shocked at how logical what we were doing was, and at the same time, how freeing it was. Because the world was so complete and it was so particular, and so detailed, that you didn’t feel the pressure to invent. Your real job was to put yourself in that world and then once you were in that world, you took on the logic and the characteristics of that world he made.”

Bobby’s “personification” takes spectacularly slithery form in the instantly notorious “Fuck me” scene, where he enters Lula’s motel room and threatens her until she repeats after him, “Fuck me,” a rape scene of harrowing force (this following an equally disturbing abortion scene, recalled by Lula for Sailor, just before she reveals to him that she’s pregnant — one surprise after another). Dern explains that Lula, horrified as she so plainly is, doesn’t even comprehend the full extent of what’s happened to her (“She’s just this sort of sexual energy that doesn’t know what’s dangerous”).

Bobby works another kind of evil on Sailor, in cajoling him into a scheme to provide for his coming family by robbing a Texas bank, armed only with dummy bullets, so that Bobby can take him out at treacherous will. That Sailor so means to do the right thing even as Bobby so needs to do wrong (and ends this career in a spectacularly bloody fashion) makes the film seem simultaneously balanced and unhinged. The “logic” that Dafoe notes in its world is immediate and frankly awesome, but it’s also precarious and often absurd. While the fantastic appearance of the Good Witch (Sheryl Lee) suggests that love is all that matters, the film has also argued against exactly this platitude throughout its running time. Sailor and Lula’s happiness can only be a fiction, a movie, and that’s why it can make sense.