Wild at Heart (1990)

One thing most detractors, and even fans, of David Lynch don't understand is that he has a dry sense of humor.  Many of his films are dead serious with some over-the-top comic interludes.  With all the weirdness going on in a movie like Eraserhead it may be easy to miss that Lynch meant it to be both disturbing and comedic, something that has carried over into even later movies like Mulholland Drive.  It is his surrealistic approach to making movies that often results in people taking his films more serious than they are intended.

That brings me to Wild at Heart, one of his more mainstream efforts.  This followed on the surprise box office success of Blue Velvet and benefited from Twin Peaks, which was causing a major stir at the time.  Wild at Heart is strange, violent and almost a softcore porn film, but manages to satirize many of the old romantic road comedies of the 1960s and 1970s while adding in a bit of rebellious attitude. 

Sailor (Nicolas Cage) is in love with Lula (Laura Dern).  Her mother Marietta (Diane Ladd) is against the relationship due to her belief that Sailor is aware of a family secret involving his old boss Santos (J.E. Freeman), a drug kingpin in the employ of the mysterious Mr. Reindeer (William Morgan Sheppard).  When Marietta hires a hitman to kill Sailor the hired killer is beaten to a pulp, landing Sailor nearly two years in jail for manslaughter.

Upon his release he and Lula decide to leave the state and go on the road, breaking his parole and heading toward California.  Marietta hires detective, and sometime lover, Johnny Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) to track them.  When she hires Santos, her other lover, to kill Sailor, he suggests getting Farragut out of the way as well.  The couple, while traveling, stop in the small town of Big Tuna, Texas, where a man named Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) offers Sailor a chance to make some easy money.  It's a decision that will have a long-term impact on the runaway lovers.

In typical Lynch fashion the bad guys are all strange archetypes, played in such a fashion that it straddles menacing and camp.  Dafoe is an expert at this and, though Peru doesn't show up until just over the last half hour of the film, he is one of the more memorable parts.  J.E. Freeman, in a surprise move, underplays Santos, while Diane Ladd goes into John Waters territory for her performance.  The only wasted one on that end is Harry Dean Stanton, who seems to be in the movie more because Lynch wanted him to rather than Farragut having any major role. 

As for Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern the chemistry is there.  Lynch had the two go on an actual roadtrip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to get to know each other better.  They spend a good half of the movie in different states of undress and in love scenes that definitely pushed the MPAA barrier between an R and an X.  One thing I did realize part of the way through is the only reason Wild at Heart was getting away with extreme levels of sex and violence without getting an NC-17 was because Lynch was the director; still, one of the more violent death scenes had to be trimmed for American audiences. 

The chemistry between the leads is important because we do spend a lot of time with Sailor and Lula on the road and, in less capable hands, the audience would have been rooting for their deaths.  Lula is not the brightest bulb on the planet and Sailor, though not stupid, has a bad habit of making the wrong decisions even if they are for the right reasons.  They are characters that could easily grate on the nerves.  Lynch also breaks up the road trip with a number of memorable scenes, one featuring a flashback featuring Charlie Spradling as one of Cage's previous sexual encounters as well as cameos by Sherilyn Fenn as an accident victim and Jack Nance as a deranged local in Big Tuna.  Isabella Rosellini and Grace Zabriskie, two other frequent actresses Lynch casts, have roles as a pair of twin hit women. 

Wild at Heart can be hokey with its frequent Elvis and Wizard of Oz references, but it manages to take a number of characters that I would normally be annoyed by and make them interesting.  It may be much more mainstream than his later films but it is still a strange ride filled with everything one expects from him.  It just still amazes me how after all this time so much of this movie is still fresh and laugh-out-loud funny, from many of the situations to Lynch's dialogue.  It is another one of those that can't be found on streaming but, unlike a lot of such films, finding it on Blu-Ray doesn't yet cost an arm and a leg. 

Wild at Heart (1990)
Time: 125 minutes
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, J.E. Freeman, Harry Dean Stanton, Willem Dafoe
Director: David Lynch



  1. David Lynch and Nic Cage seem like they should have worked pretty well together. "Your crazy matches my crazy."


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