Friday Editor’s Pick: Wild at Heart (1990)

by on May 5, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri May 11 and Fri May 12 at Midnight at Nitehawk Cinema [Program & Tix]

David Lynch’s wildly controversial pulp Wizard of Oz whatsit – winner of the Cannes Palme D’Or, but subsequently accused of simmering in its own weirdness and failing everyone’s Twin Peaks-fueled high expectations, is an Alt Screen fave.

Hal Hinson pretty much summarizes the critical steamrolling the movie suffered, for The Washington Post:

David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” is unlike anything that’s ever been made before. It’s swampy and destabilizing in that subversive, perversely original, signature Lynchian way. But “Wild at Heart” isn’t the David Lynch movie that anyone could have hoped for — not his new fans, who’ve discovered him through “Twin Peaks,” or his older ones.


But Geoff Andrew finds plenty to love in the face of quibbles, for Time Out (London):

So much is exhilaratingly unsettling. Even more than a virtuoso shoot-out, two scenes – Stanton tortured by a gang of grotesques, a truly nasty car crash – exemplify Lynch’s ability to disturb through carefully contrived atmosphere; while the performances lend a consistency of tone lacking in the narrative (but ever-present in Fred Elmes’ fine camerawork). The film, finally, is funny, scary and brilliantly cinematic.


We tried to find some more defenders, and our valiant efforts weren’t entirely in vain.


Vincent Canby for the New York Times:

It’s the old fun-house principle. Nightmares are made real. Without moving, one seems to plummet through pitch darkness. The response in a fun house is a pleasurably scary physical sensation. Lynch films go several steps further: nothing in life is fixed. All reality is relative.They suggest that though the universe is without end, it may exist within the tip of a blade of grass.

Mr. Lynch has taken Gifford’s slim, vivid work and pumped it up into a cockeyed epic that goes back to the early days of Pop art.


Howard Hampton for Film Comment (May/June 1993):

In Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, nostalgia is one more source of pervasive displacement. David Lynch reanimates the norms of “sweetness and health” by plunging them into the heart of noirness: MacLachlan’s Jeffrey and Laura Dern’s Sandy running up against Dennis Hopper’s gas-sniffing proto-crackhead Frank and Isabella Rossellini’s tragic mystery woman Dorothy, pop fairy tale elements (the Good Witch of Oz blessing a pseudo-Elvis) colliding with carnage and doom on an anything but open road. Lynch uses these stock figures, and configurations, as a mythic shorthand that we can read immediately. But where a Spielberg plays them straight, milking their glommy, gee-whiz conformism (going so far as to resurrect the B-picture Reagan of Hong Kong as free-world savior Indiana Jones), Lynch’s shorthand characters transform themselves into giddy, inscrutable runes.


Surprise! Edgar Wright screened the film recently in LA and kept Laura Dern’s attendance a secret from the audience. She in turn kept Lynch’s attendance a secret from Wright. Shakey camera, but a true event:


Keith Phipps thinks the film is a suitable companion piece to Twin Peaks, for The Onion AV Club:

Appearing in August a few weeks ahead of Peaks’ second season, Wild At Heart felt at the time a bit like an extension of the series, even if now they’re not usually spoken of together. Shot between the Peaks pilot and the first episode, it featured series regulars Grace Zabriskie, Sheryl Lee, Jack Nance, David Patrick Kelly, and Sherilyn Fenn. Mostly the roles bear only a passing similarity to their Peaks characters, but after watching a bunch of episodes it’s striking to see, say, Mrs. Palmer dressed up as a dominatrix. I suspect in real life Grace Zabriskie is a charming professional. To work as successfully as she has as a character actress, she’d almost have to be. But she does crazy so well it’s unsettling. Here she plays the part of Juana Durango, who seems almost like a Black Lodge version of Mrs. Palmer. The wild eyes are the same but where in the series reflect a perpetual, wounded fearfulness, here she’s the one doing the wounding. With maniacal glee.
Ultimately I think the two projects make nice companion pieces. Wild At Heart feels like Lynch unfiltered. Twin Peaks forces some discipline on him, but ultimately the vision is the same. Just look at the scene in which Sailor and Lula, cruising along to the strains of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” happen on a horrific accident by the side of the road. Only Sherilyn Fenn survives, and not for long. Looking and sounding every bit like Audrey Horne she lives only long enough to spout some frantic nonsense and complain about the spongy stuff in her hair. Then she collapses. Not everyone makes it to the end of the road. Peaks‘ Bob keeps talking about fire. In Wild At Heart Lynch returns again and again to the sound and image of a flame being struck. The suggestion is clear: Fire only lights up those it doesn’t first engulf.


Chris Anthony Diaz relays an anecdote for The House Next Door:

Speaking at a Saturday midnight screening (November 9, 2006), Wild at Heart screenwriter Barry Gifford could only recall one thing about the film before its release. It was the ratings board’s appeal hearing he and David Lynch attended for sex scenes that got Wild at Heart an initial X-Rating. (Which was the version ultimately released in Europe, by the way!) One of the older ratings board panelists was appalled that Sailor Ripley was doing Lula Fortune in the pooper.
Lynch fired backed at the panelist, arguing, “How do you know that? He’s behind her, so he’s fucking her from behind—he’s not fucking her IN the behind!!!” The panelist simply responded with an, “Oh.” And the scene remained in the American release, too!


You can read Jonathan Rosenbaum’s solid pan here. But Terrence Rafferty has one of the more amusing knee-jerk reactions, for The New Yorker:

Right from the start, just about everything is wrong with this David Lynch movie, and the wrongness has an escalating, vertiginous quality. Every false move seems to lead to another, more disastrous than the one before. It’s a buzzing, hyperkinetic picture, but its wildness is all on the surface: the images are elaborately conceived, arrresting, and meaningless, like tattoos. The novel by Barry Gifford on which Lynch based his screenplay is a languorous, arty trifle about a pair of lovers named Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern), who drive from North Carolina to Texas and stop at ratty hotels and motels along the way; they’re hard-lovin’ losers who smoke a lot and don’t get to the place they set out for (California). Their happiness is threatened by a variety of kinky villains, mostly of Lynch’s invention: Gifford’s poky Deep South odyssey is now an orgy of evil, full of graphic violence and grotesque craziness. The shocks don’t have much resonance, though; the weirdness here is inexpressive and trivial, even silly. And the lurid villainy always seems diversionary, a baroque disguise for a bland, lifeless, and overfamiliar story. The movie is one startling lapse of taste after another; it’s a sorry spectacle.



Georgia Brown, however, thinks “it’s just grand” for The Village Voice:

“Lordy, what was that all about?” This is what normal people walking out of David Lynch movies mutter. It´s also an exclamation drawled by Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) in Lynch´s spellbinding, spectaculary decadent, Southern gothic movie Wild at Heart. Winner of this year´s Palme d`Or at Cannes, Wild at Heart is flamboyantly violent and erotic; it´s also very funny. Some Lynch fans hate the movie, and others resist it more genially, feeling it goes too far. Sure, he goes too far, and then, a practiced onanist, he pulls it off.
Wild at Heart may be wispy and amorphous (making it hard to hold in mind afterward), but it´s also formally beguiling and, in places, brilliant. I have in mind how the spastic plot jerks and scrambles along by means of flashbacks, tangents, non sequiturs, stories the characters tell, and scenes they come across. While they´re on the road, Sailor and Lula share memories, and Lynch illustrates these strange little interior dramas as if furnishing rooms in a capacious dollhouse.
Lula tells about how her cousin Dell (Crispin Glover), the boy who put cockroaches down his underpants, stayed up all night making sandwiches, and threw tantrums when he found out Christmas wasn´t coming soon. Sailor recalls a hooker he once went with – a story that serves as foreplay: “You got me hotter ´n Georgia asphalt,” says Lul. Then there´s the car radio that only gets atrocity reports and an eerie accident scene along the highway – a gory car wreck serving up a Freudian nightmare. Wandering dazed among dead bodies, a young woman (Sherilyn Fenn from Twin Peaks) hallucinates that her mama´s going to kill her for losing her pocketbook; she begins scratching her head as if she´s about to lift her scalp: “There´s this sticky stuff in my hair,” she moans. From scene to scene, in that candid, childlike way of his, Lynch amazes with how far he´s willing to go.


Cynthia Fuchs, for PopMatters:

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.
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 it, 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.


Dawn Taylor for The DVD Journal:

It’s perhaps the most flat-out Lynchian of all the director’s films, both brilliant and deeply self-indulgent, and it certainly wasn’t embraced by every critic at the time of its release — Roger Ebert (who also famously disliked Blue Velvet) said he felt repulsed and manipulated by the film, and wrote that Lynch “exercises the consistent streak of misogynism” in his work. Indeed, Wild at Heart isn’t an easy film to digest, populated by broadly drawn eccentrics with an almost anecdotal plot and occasionally loathsome imagery. But for those with a taste for Lynch’s perverse humor, iconoclastic visual sense, and goofy, twisted characters, it stands as one of the two or three most striking pictures in the director’s filmography.
The oddities are fiercely memorable, and they threaten to draw too much attention away from the artfulness of Lynch’s story, which weaves bits of lore from The Wizard of Oz (Marietta’s likeness to the Wicked Witch, Lula’s clicking together of her red high heels, Sailor’s redemption by the Good Witch [Sheryl Lee] at film’s end) with a wealth of subtle references to filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Jacques Tati, and Akira Kurosawa, all the while allowing Cage to play Sailor as an Elvis-obsessed romantic and Dern to give full reign to depraved innocence and wild-eyed carnality. Lynch’s visual sense in Wild At Heart equals that of his two most celebrated films, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, with an attention to detail and an iconic use of color that’s awe-inspiring, as he revisits his own favorite motifs (highway asphalt at night, body parts and grotesque decay) while continually reinforcing images specific to the story — blazing fire, lit cigarettes, and car accidents. Wild At Heart is melodramatic, giddily self-aware, painfully stylized, and challenging at every turn — filmmaking as provocation, by a director who seemed to know that the fifteen minutes of fame during which he’d be allowed to do whatever he pleased were fleeting, and therefore chose to throw everything he had at the screen without fear, or compromise.



A CBC interview with the director:

How would you describe Wild At Heart?

Its a love story in the middle of a violent, twisted, modern world.
What attracted you to the story?

I read Barry Gifford’s book and fell in love with the title, with Sailor and Lula, and the world that seemed so real in the book. I loved Giffords way of seeing things, and it started triggering lots of things within me. Pretty soon, I was hooked and on the way.
Was the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz an important part of the script you wrote?

No. I wrote two scripts. The first one was pretty much devoid of any happiness. And many of the people who read it were in a position to make it said they wouldn’t. They really wanted to work with me, but they rejected that particular script. I ended up in Samuel Goldwyn Jr.’s office, and he said, “David, I hate this ending. Why do you want to do this?” and my only answer was that it was true to the book. I told him I also hated the ending because, as well as being so depressing, it didn’t ring true to the characters. I found myself in the position where if I gave it a happy ending, it would look like I had completely sold out and taken the commercial route. And I hope that I did it because honestly and truly the material was screaming to be that way.
What does the author, Barry Gifford, think of your film?

The author really digs the movie. He told me way up front I could do anything I wanted. Because I told him that I love the book and wanted to be true to the essence of it, which is Sailor and Lula and their characters, and the title, which conjures up a wild world.


Travis Mackenzie Hoover for Film Freak Central:

Wild at Heart chucks Velveeta America entirely and imagines a world run by Frank Booth and his ilk. Indeed, Wild at Heart wallows in the kinds of kinky horrors that are viewed in Lynch’s other films from a distance, and it’s not a pretty sight. Here is the fallen Eden, Lynch-style, where everyone has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and been cast out of paradise to fuck, shoot, and act unnaturally before meeting untimely, gory ends.
And it’s this wallow in deviant horror that defines the film’s strengths and weaknesses. Granted, nobody but Lynch could’ve put together this parade of freaks and have it all hang together: Wild at Heart is an insanely well-wrought collection of not just diegetic madness but also stylistic grotesqueries like lens distortions and flash musical cues that coalesce into a seamless stylistic barrage.



Kristi Mitsuda recommends multiple viewings, for Reverse Shot:

First impressions are fierce; only upon a replay could I begin to grasp Wild at Heart separate from my sensorial responses to Lynch’s visual and aural atmospheres (amplified, of course, by the theatrical setting of my initial viewing). Exhilarated by its strange blend of the beautiful and lurid, innocent and corrupt, and overwhelmed by the intricacies of seemingly self-consciously convoluted storytelling I realized I’d almost missed the lovely simplicity of it beneath Lynch’s surrealist-poetic embroidery.

A single viewing is hardly enough to afford the spectator adequate mental headroom to grapple with this director’s evocatively embellished concerns anyway and, though a positive, isolated experience with a movie takes on a magical aspect. Wild at Heart is, for all its confounding detours, simply this: a gorgeous love story set in a hyperbolically fucked-up world. As I was watching it again, one scene struck me: Lula, driving, switches radio stations, increasingly appalled as each one reports news more horrific than the last (a woman shoots and kills her three children, a man has sex with a corpse . . .), as Lynch alternates quick cuts of her hand on the dial with reaction shots. She finally pulls over to the side of the road, hops out of the car, screams, “I can’t take no more of this radio. I’ve never heard of so much shit in all my life. Sailor Ripley, you get me some music on that radio this instant!” Sailor flips through the channels and finds one with the hard rock they’d danced to earlier in a club. He jumps out of the car and joins Lula, and they dance in strange rhythms with aggressive movements, unleashing their disgust. As the camera pulls back, the music blends with and then gives way to Richard Strauss’s Im Abendrot, which crescendos over a long shot of the lovers as they stop dancing and embrace, literally singled out by the film’s twilight lighting. The camera tilts slightly upwards to edge the car out of the frame, rendering Lula and Sailor alone in the universe, two tiny figures in a grassy field. Lynch conveys in rapturous cinematic shorthand that love is all in a world that’s “wild at heart and weird on top.” Repeated viewings let you break the whole down into its parts, as you’re able to delve more deeply into it and yet keep an analytical distance, a forced consideration of its artistry.



John Semley analyzes Nicholas Cages’s performance, also for The AV Club:

More than any of David Lynch’s films, 1990’s Wild At Heart is an exercise in tropes. It’s a brightly woven tapestry of signs and symbols, irony and metaphor. Its synthetic-noir Wizard Of Oz riffing is defined by its very trope-iness. In Wild At Heart, a character won’t just wear an ostentatious snakeskin jacket as an obvious symbol of individuality and belief in personal freedom. No. Rather, that same character will outright tell you that that’s what it is. It’s disarmingly obvious.
Unlike Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr., or Twin Peaks—which are all patterned as stories of wide-eyed innocents tainted by evil forces bubbling just beneath the surface of daily life—Wild At Heart proceeds from inequity and charts a course back into redemption. In Blue Velvet, we wait to see what MacLachlan’s pervert/detective is capable of. In Wild At Heart, Cage’s unchecked savagery is laid bare in the opening scene. Then we watch as he works to effectively contain it—with the occasional purifying outburst, of course.
Unlike Lynchian roles played by Harry Dean Stanton or Grace Zabriskie, Cage’s Ripley seems singular. As flat and overly ironic the film is, Cage stands out in his own super flat and overly ironic way. And when, after two hours of teasing, Cage finally sings “Love Me Tender” to Dern, it’s legitimately sweet and affecting in the movie’s own wax-museum way.
And that jacket.



Kathleen Murphy is most piqued by Willem Dafoe’s role, in Film Comment (Nov 1990):

The best thing in Wild at Heart, the film’s second dark angel. Every time Bobby Peru skins his lips back from those horrible brown stumps, he rubs our noses in mad monkey-life, the reeking, rutting animal who crouches somewhere in even the most evolved of skulls. Here is mortality at its ugliest, signaled by gross appetite and decay. Lula and Sailor are no match for him; he breaks their fragile faith in themselves and each other. His cold-blooded turn-on of Lula is shot like a dirty movie, graphic and up close in the adulterated light of day. No amount of clicking her red shoes together can get Lula back to “nice and simple” Kansas. She’s been made to acknowledge her own sexuality, the mindless autonomy of the flesh.



Trevor Link, in his thoughtful defense, is particularly affected by Diane Ladd, for his blog Journey by Frame:

At the core of this drama is the figure of the mother, specifically Lula’s mother Marietta. The film opens a man, hired by Marietta, trying to kill Sailor. Later, we find out that she attempted to seduce Sailor in the men’s bathroom shortly before this man attacked him. Marietta represents what Jean-Joseph Goux calls the “‘monstrous maternal,’ whose murder is essential for the rite of passage to take place” (Mulvey). And in fact, though Marietta is not killed by Sailor (or Lula), she does later vanish when Lula stands up to her; the “monstrous maternal” is purged from Sailor and Lula’s life. This strange character, is contrasted with Sheryl Lee’s Good Witch. Marietta is a witch-like character in general, but in one of the film’s most disturbing scene, she takes lipstick and covers her face in a bright, neon red mask, vaguely reminiscent of the green face of Oz’s Wicked Witch. What makes this scene so disturbing is the transgressive use of a mundane object such as lipstick. As I argued with regards to Hitchcock, it is the mundane that serves as the most effective jumping-off point for surrealist subversion. Both Hitchcock and the surrealists themselves are key influences on Lynch, and he delights in fetishistically, obsessively focusing in on certain mundane objects. In this case, lipstick is an interesting choice. It is an object which is used by women, not children, and girls learn to use it by observing and then imitating their mothers. But in this scene, its use highlights the fundamental rupture of Marietta from both her daughter Lula and her surrogate son Sailor. In many ways, the film’s narrative hinges on the latter characters triumphing over Marietta and purging her from their new family. Marietta functions as the site of family trauma: she had her husband killed and, it can be inferred, poorly protected Lula, who was raped by her “Uncle” Pooch. When she uses the lipstick to inscribe upon her own body the trauma and pain of American family life, she transgressively uses an object of beautification to mark her own inner ugliness. The scene’s agony, the way Marietta’s mouth shapes a unending cry for help, resonates above and beyond the film’s happy ending. It is a chilling image, one nearly impossible to erase from memory and a sign of what makes Lynch such a unique and powerful artist.


Leo Goldsmith for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

Among the many Bonnie and Clyde-style road movies in cinema history, David Lynch’s 1990 film, Wild at Heart, is unsurprisingly the weirdest. It is also almost certainly the most self-conscious entry in that cycle of films that comprises Gun Crazy, Badlands, and True Romance (and its bastard cousin, Natural Born Killers). Each of these films follows the crime spree of a pair of lovers for whom sex and violence become entangled in an imaginary world of pop culture referentiality: for Badlands’ Kit and Holly, this is the world of James Dean and teen magazines; for Wild at Heart’s Sailor and Lula, it is the world of Elvis Presley and The Wizard of Oz. Like their counterparts in Nick Ray’s They Live by Night, Sailor and Lula “were never properly introduced to the world we live in.”
But as with so many of Lynch’s films, the world we live in is not particularly relevant. Wild at Heart takes its protagonists’ twisted, perverse subconscious as its reality: a world of circus freak hitmen, trailer trash Wicked Witches, and, well, Crispin Glover. Sailor and Lula’s crime spree (actually a comparatively tame affair, consisting of a few parole violations, some assault and battery, and a botched armed robbery) is a retreat from a seductively wild and weird world of “S-H-I-tut” into the security of that place over the rainbow.
Wild at Heart constructs a bizarre nightmare landscape, not only through its notoriously violent imagery, but also through Lynch’s typically meticulous sound design, an aural collage of crackling fire, ’50’s hipster rock ’n’ roll, and Wicked Witch cackling. This is highlighted by Angelo Badalamenti’s absurdly operatic score, which adds a super-size portion of gravitas to the trashy value-meal that is the film’s plot. Like all of Lynch’s work, Wild at Heart combines these elements in pursuit of a fleeting glimpse of the twisted paths and dark interiors of the subconscious. As Sailor lovingly tells Lula, “What goes on in your mind is God’s own private mystery.”


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