(1990) dir. David Lynch
Deciding to revisit some older David Lynch films, for some reason, I decided to start with Wild at Heart, a film that I don’t think I’d seen in at least 15 years. Well, the really freaky thing about it is realizing that the film is almost 20 years old. Jesus that makes me feel old! I remember going to see this when it came out in 1990 with a bunch of friends, all upped and excited about Lynch at the time. I don’t remember thinking overly highly of it, though.
Adapted from writer Barry Gifford’s novel, Wild at Heart follows Sailor (Nicolas Cage, still very much a cool guy) and Lula (Laura Dern) as they run across country in both escape and in seeking something, their freedom, perhaps. Sailor had served time on a manslaughter charge, and Lula’s mother (Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd) is trying viciously to do anything to keep them apart, even calling in help of an old mobster lover to put a hit out on them.
The story is very much about this idealized love that Sailor and Lula have, a very sexually-charged love, a love that is tested by the violence, cruelty, and psychosis of the world, but ultimately a love that endures and succeeds. But the world is indeed a sick-ass place, populated by creeps and demons, half-sane old people, and car wrecks. It’s truly Lynchian. Perhaps it’s one of those things that has come to signify such a term.
The film itself endures well, in my opinion. Cage, channeling Elvis Presley, and rocking out to speed-metal, mixed with Dern’s tall, lean body and piles of curly blond hair, an innocent among the crazed and depraved. The energy is there in spades. It’s not entirely surprising that this film won the Palmes D’or at Cannes that year.
The thing that really failed to click for me in the past, which is still so heavy-handed and prominent is the The Wizard of Oz (1939) themes. While the highway West is their “yellow brick road” and Ladd is clearly portrayed in visions as “the wicked witch”, it’s an obsessionist influence that is a tad questionable. I mean, it works largely, in symbolism and in its own inherent Surrealism, a popular cultural embedded mix of imagery that is easily gleaned. But still. It’s one of those “buy it or not” aspects of the film, that back in 1990, I didn’t buy.
All these years later, though, I think Lynch is one of the most interesting American directors of the late 20th Century and onset of the 21st. And this film is fun and powerful and both disturbing and beautiful. Perhaps it’s the most hopeful of his films. Some might argue that the ending has such a artificial sort of set-up, with the good witch inspiring Cage to run back and sing “Love Me Tender”, his own signifier of undying love and marriage, being the over-the-top happy ending. But the bottom line is that their love is an idealized love and they are characters that one hopes for and wants to see happy. It is Lynch testifying to the power of love in a monstrous world. Sometimes the good and innocent do succeed.