Judge Brett Cullum thinks this oft-reviled David Lynch feature definitely has its charms, if you know how to approach it.
Our review of Wild at Heart (1990) (Blu-ray), published April 25th, 2014, is also available.
Lula: This whole world's wild at heart and weird on top.
Wild at Heart is one of David Lynch's most accessible movies, and simultaneously the one that most divides fans and critics. It's a straight-ahead formulaic "lovers on the run" road movie, but with Lynch at the helm. In other words it is brave, bizarre, and disorienting. Love Lynch or hate him, his movies are different from everyone else in a trademark way. He's been labeled "hack" and "auteur" in equal amounts. Wild at Heart is a heavily stylized movie that will either have you hooked from the opening scene, or rabid with disgust that a film so over-the-top came from an American artist. No matter where you stand on the debate, Wild at Heart gets a remarkable and impressive release from MGM loaded with some meaty extras and one gorgeous transfer.
Facts of the Case
Much to her mother's dismay, Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern, Blue Velvet, Jurassic Park) loves Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage, Adaptation, Matchstick Men). Momma Marietta Fortune (Laura Dern's real life mother Dianne Ladd, Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) will do anything to keep them apart, including hiring various hit men to take out Sailor. Not only is nobody good enough for her Lula, but Sailor may know some secrets of the family from his days working for a crime lord named Santos. The two crazy kids decide to hit the road to see if they can find a safe life away from big bad mamma's stranglehold, and find themselves tearing through the South and meeting dangerous types everywhere they turn. Will true love conquer all? Or will Marietta's not-so-secret connection to the underworld tear them apart?
David Lynch makes sculptures out of celluloid. He molds visual elements such as color and fire around music to create palpable visceral fever dreams that play out in front of the viewer in disturbingly beautiful ways. Wild at Heart won a Palme d'Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival amid equally divided cheers and boos. Lynch was at the height of popularity and fashion after his successful television series Twin Peaks and the critically lauded Blue Velvet. The cast for Wild at Heart featured many of his regulars, and marked the first collaboration between the filmmaker and novelist Barry Gifford (who would later help him write Lost Highway). The story is simple, but it's the details and weird touches Lynch lays in that makes it complex and darkly disturbing. It's all played in a self-conscious style. Everything is linear and easy to follow, but Lynch allows his own trademark weirdness to muck things up enough to make it all resonate deeper than just any old "road flick."
Lynch foreshadows Quentin Tarantino's style by creating Wild at Heart out of a patchwork of ultra-violent or quirky film homages. Much seems to be made about the Wizard of Oz references that come fast and furious; however, there are many more homages from obscure French surrealist directors, Kurosawa, and even an extended sequence lifted straight out of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. He often executes the homage in a sly tossed-off way; but sometimes it's a more direct copy to make it even more surreal. It seems every scene and actor is channeling something different at any given moment. Nicolas Cage creates Sailor Ripley as an amalgam of Elvis Presley and James Dean. He's a not-too-bright anti-hero who wins our love with his heartfelt impulses to care for Lula. Oddly enough the snake skin jacket he wears throughout the film came from his own closet, and was an item he talked Lynch into including in the script. Dern pouts and preens as Lula, and creates a baby-woman that recalls a punked out Marilyn Monroe seeing life in terms of The Wizard of Oz. She seems to pose and preen as if she's not yet comfortable in her own skin. She has to learn to break the apron strings before we see her self-confidence shine. Dianne Ladd, as the mother, was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar the year the film came out (she lost to Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost). Marietta is a freaking force of nature; Ladd plays her not as a woman but as an exposed raw nerve. She evokes many screen sirens with her ever-changing wigs, and destroys all convention as the woman loses grip while holding on too tight. There is one scene where she applies some lipstick too liberally that is iconic and haunting. Willem Dafoe comes into the picture at the halfway mark as Bobby Peru, a criminal psychopath who is all gums and swagger. He had just come off of The Last Temptation of Christ, and this role seemed to obliterate all chance of anyone seeing Dafoe as a Biblical hero anymore. He seemed to relish ditching his holier-than-thou image in exchange for the chance to play the devil hiding out in West Texas. He is as disturbing as Ladd, and the two make potent villains who seem to dwell in nightmares made all of miasma and sickness. Along for the ride are many of Lynch's Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet regulars, such as Sheryl Lee, Sherilyn Fenn, Harry Dean Stanton, Isabella Rosellini, Jack Nance and Grace Zabriski. Crispin Glover (Charlie's Angels and Willard) makes a memorable cameo as cousin Dell, who wants Christmas every day and the perfect sandwich.
The version we get on this DVD is the United States theatrical release, which had several cuts made to it compared to the film shown at Cannes and in some European countries. A particularly brutal sex scene during an assassination is cut, and one of the more violent sequences involving some major head trauma from a shotgun blast to the head gets digitally blurred. Yet even with the self-censoring (mixed with demands from the always helpful MPAA), the movie contains some of Lynch's most graphic depictions of sex and violence to date. Cage and Dern show a lot of guts during the film's aggressive love making scenes, and few punches are pulled with the gore. It remains as shocking as it was back in 1990 when it was released. Wild at Heart is designed to be a thrill ride with moments of unbelievable terror followed by dark humor. It is unsettling in many ways.
The disc's transfer was supervised by David Lynch himself who spent a lot of time making sure every color and shot were perfectly recreated from his own unique perspective. It looks amazing! The film has had several releases in many regions, but this translation to the home screen eclipses them all for quality and beauty. The sound design is equally cared for, and the aural components are just as striking as the matches whose flames threaten to explode all five of your home speakers. >From Angelo Badalementi's stirring score to Chris Isaak's haunting "Wicked Game," the soundtrack is delivered without any distortion or missteps. There is even a special feature explaining Lynch's commitment to the DVD format and the process. He worked on this project for about a year and a half, sitting in telecine bays giving notes on color corrections and grain levels. What results is something breathtaking and flawless, probably only rivaled by the transfers of his other two masterpieces Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. You'll never see this movie in better condition even if you somehow time-warped back to 1990 and caught it on the silver screen.
Other extras include a current set of interviews with the cast and crew, and a thirty minute "making of" feature. They talk about working with Lynch, and how they approached this project. You get to see a lot of footage that supports their claim that he does not let actors improvise much. You would think he would, but every quirk and facial tic is specifically directed by him. They also include the movie's original electronic press kit which serves to remind you how horrible the film could look without any supervision (hard to believe the difference). Despite no commentary track, the extras seem to add up to something equal since the participants (even the mysterious Lynch himself) provide their insights into every aspect of the production.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some people don't like David Lynch, and some of his fans don't like Wild at Heart. He has a technique of staying on things about three beats longer than any sane director would, and his rhythms within a scene feel strange when you watch the movie. It's off-putting and remote. Quite often he seems to pull a shock just for the sake of being shocking, or being strange just for the sake of alienating his audience. The stylization of Wild at Heart really bugs some people, but this is a pulp fairy tale and I doubt they were ever aiming for reality. Dern, Cage, Ladd, and Dafoe all seem way over the top every step of the way. Ladd particularly goes all out screaming and bunching her hands into claws while howling like a Southern banshee. It can get grating. The violence and sex are delivered in the same vein—all stylized and over the top. You have to go in with a camp sensibility to even enjoy the movie, because it demands that you not take it all too seriously. And for that reason many people find it off-putting. Maybe they wanted the darkness of other Lynch films which often introduced reality into a twisted nightmare. There is a part of the film where it seems to drag, and that's when Sailor and Lula end up holing up in a fleabag motel in Big Tuna, Texas. Seems Dern has little to do other than smoke and be sick for about half an hour, but it's all part of a very specific homage to Touch of Evil.
The Southern-fried crime fairy tale sensibility worked, and Wild at Heart is one of the easiest Lynch films to pop in and enjoy time and again. It has a happy ending, and enough quotable sections to keep your friends rolling for days ("You got me hotter than Georgia asphalt!"). The movie plays as a collage of homages rather than as Lynch digging for something creative. It seemed ahead of its time, since many national critics like Roger Ebert slammed it at the time it came out for being derivative and overly violent, but then four years later praised Tarantino when he did the same thing with Pulp Fiction. Yeah, it's over the top and wild at heart and weird on the bottom. But that's the way I like it! Sing me an Elvis song, Sailor.
Lynch is always free to go and make anything strange, straight, or wonderful. MGM proves it has the stuff to deliver great packages for some of their more obscure properties that are as important as Mr. Bond. Kudos all around for a value-priced must-have package.
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Scales of Justice
• Dell's Lunch Counter: All-New Extended Interviews with Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, David Lynch, Willem Dafoe, Diane Ladd, and Sheryl Lee
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