R (or. NC_17), 125 min, 1990

Director: David Lynch
Writers: Barry Gifford (novel Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula), David Lynch (screenplay)
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe

David Lynch’s Wild at Heart is a modern horror-romance, a Southern-fried surrealist excursion down the rabbit hole. Big, sweeping, romantic, absurd, disturbing and frightening all at once, it is a film at once familiar and unique, original and like no other.

Nicolas Cage stars as the Elvis-inspired Sailor and Laura Dern is Lula, his hot pink-wearing, bubble gum-popping paramour. As the film opens, they attend a party in Cape Fear, and Sailor is attacked by a black man who claims that Lula’s mother has hired him to kill Sailor. Sailor fights back, bludgeoning the man’s head against the marble floor in “self-defense.”

Sailor is sent to prison for over two years, and when he gets out Lula is waiting for him. They will take to the road and travel down their own twisted path to freedom, paved with freaks, geeks and murder. Standing in their way is Lula’s psychotically jealous and controlling mother Mariette Fortune (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real-life mom).

She hires first a private eye named Johnny Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), then is revealed to have connections to mob killer Marcelles Santos (JE Freeman) and his improbably named-employer Mr. Reindeer (W. Morgan Sheppard), and a frightening New Orleans woman named Juana Durango (Grace Zabriskie), who may or may not be connected with voodoo. The road trip is periodically interrupted with sex scenes of raw power, which play more like an exorcising of Sailor and Lula’s demons than an expression of physical love. During these sequences, Lynch bathes his frame in lurid greens, blues and yellows, as if their sensuality threatens to set the screen aflame.

The pair finally makes it to Big Tuna, Texas, a rust bucket of a town in which we have Jack Nance in a bit part as a half-crazy, wild-eyed man with white hair who rambles about his dog in typical Lynchian fashion, and Willem Dafoe appears as the latest villain for the duration of the film’s second half. Dafoe is Bobby Peru, a rotting-toothed sociopath with an eye on Lula and a desire to ensnare Sailor in a hair-brained bank robbery scheme.

The film comes full circle, and we are spit back out of Lynch’s universe shaken, stirred, a little dazed, and more than a bit confused. It’s unclear, but the many Wizard of Oz references, some blatant and obvious, others just this side of subtle, may be the doing of Barry Gifford, who wrote the novel adapted here, or could likely be Lynch’s way of telling his fractured version of a fairy tale.

Lynch has always been possessed of a sense of satire and surreality in his work, ranging from the above-the-surface antics of the small town in Blue Velvet (1986) to the soap operatics of TV’s Twin Peaks. Above all, he’s a filmmaker who is willing to experiment. Here, Lynch throws these seemingly disparate and conflicting elements onto the canvas with manic zeal like a Jackson Pollock painting. The film is romantic, funny, strange, disturbing and violent, but it’s also an original vision of America.


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