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Non-Review Review: Wild at Heart

I’ve always had a soft spot for David Lynch, if only because – much like David Cronenberg – you always got the sense that his artistic vision was pretty unfettered by concerns about broad appeal or studio policy or anything like that. There’s a wonderful sense of freedom, in how he works. There’s a great quote from the guys at Pixar that they don’t make movies for kids, they make movies for themselves – if other people happen to enjoy it, well… that’s great too. That sums up a lot of what I respect about Lynch. Wild at Heart isn’t perhaps one of those moments where Lynch’s interests manage to overlap with truly great cinema (as they do, I would argue, for Mullholland Drive, Blue Velvet and The Straight Story), but it isn’t so completely scattershot as to be impenetrable, either.

Dancing in the... highways?

In many ways, Wild at Heart feels like Lynch tending towards being somewhat idealistic. Sure, horrible things happen (repeatedly) to good people, it seems that our heroes are fighting against odds that simply won’t be beaten, and Lynch devotes a great deal of time to sinister deconstructions of core American stereotypes (be it the family life of the Fortunes or the romanticism around desert outlaws), but the cast is populated with a few genuinely decent and empathic human beings who do (occasionally) earn a happy ending, even if they have to travel through hell to earn it. Good, Lynch seems to suggest, doesn’t so much beat evil as it endures whatever evil can throw at it.

Of course, this is undoubtedly an overly simplistic reading. Lynch’s work is so richly layered with subtext that books could be written (and have been written), devoted to decoding the hidden symbols and meanings that the director has put in place. That said, it’s all subjective. One person’s deeper meaning is another person’s pretentious nonsense. I’m not such a blind devotee of Lynch that I believe he doesn’t wander into abstract cinema just for the sake of abstract cinema – but I do like some of it. I enjoy it.

Young hearts run free...

So, what we have here is something which resembles a road movie through the lens of a fifties “teenage rebellion” picture, along with a far more cynical modern crime film. The lead character, literally named “Sailor”, is played by Nicolas Cage doing a wonderful full-on Elvis Presley impersonation. Sailor wears a snakeskin jacket (symbolising his “individuality” and his “belief in personal freedom”) because perhaps a leather jacket would have too obviously evoked the (tragically short) teenage rebellion of James Dean. Sent to prison in order to keep him away from Lula Fortune, his teenage heart throb, Sailor gets out and the couple embark on an across country road trip together.

Sailor is a whole host of classic American archetypes as he rides across the heartland of America in his convertible, which might as well be his home. He’s “an A-number-one certified murderer”, even though he only killed in self-defense. He was a driver in a criminal organisation, but is enough of a decent human being to want to bring a car crash victim to the local emergency room, regardless of the consequences for his parole. He’ll fight to protect his girl’s honour, but is man enough not to take it too far (“get yourself a beer,” he cheerily advises a guy he just beat up).

Driving love...

Lula, similarly, is remembering an idyllic childhood that never happened, ignoring the sad truth that her mother knew about the abuse she suffered from her uncle, and ignoring the rather obvious observation that her father didn’t douse himself in gasoline and set himself alite. There’s a genuine affection between Lula and Sailor, even though they are both two very damaged and broken people.

Lynch plays with this notion of youth in revolt, even though his characters are already in their twenties. Lynch cleverly connects the rebellion of Elvis (and his pelvic thrusts) to more modern forms of teenage emotional expression, like speed metal. In one scene, Sailor performs Elvis’ Love Me with backing from a metal band (and Lynch even keeps the audience in the soundtrack, as it sounds like Sailor is swamped with swooning fans).

Lynch manages to give his movie a fairytale ending...

At another point, the two are driving along and flicking through the radio stations, listening to reports of murders, rapes and mutilations. Lula freaks out at every station on the radio insists on reminding the pair that the world is a terrible, terrible place, populated with cruel and selfish people (and the film does little to challenge this assertion). “Sailor Ripley,” Lula demands, “you get me some music on that radio, this instant!” Cue the pair thrashing around to heavy metal. Moral guardians are quick to condemn rock music and other media for corrupting youth, while Lynch makes the observation that perhaps these forms of expression are a response to a dark and cynical world. Indeed, Lula’s mother has no right to try to “protect” her daughter from Sailor (given her own past), but she does so anyway. Lynch is, in that fine tradition of teenage rebellion, is convinced that sometimes mama doesn’t know best.

As would seem to be par for the course when it comes to David Lynch movies, the film is populated with strong supporting actors in quirky supporting roles – including Harry Dean Stanton, Willem Dafoe, W. Morgan Sheppard and Isabella Rossalini. There are any number of archetypical supporting characters, from gangsters to sociopaths to private detectives.

Fortune-ate daughter?

The film is simply too scattershot for its own good. It’s wildly erratic for its first hour, jumping aroud randomly between flashbacks and musical numbers and subplots, but then it strangely settles down for the last hour, as Lula and Sailor stop their drive and settle down for a while. The second half of the film could almost be described as “conventional” (which, strangely, sounds like an insult when you use it to describe a David Lynch film). There’s a whole bunch of random stuff that seems to happen, but some of it is so mundane that it loses a lot of impact – for example, while the story of Lula’s sandwich-making cousin is delightfully madcap, the entire Mr. Reindeer subplot is the kind of gangster element you’d see in a Scorsese film.

It’s all over the place. As with any Lynch film, it’s not strong enough to offer as a blind recommendation – but if you’re looking for something just a bit different and have tolerance for Americana with more than a hint of surrealism, it’s not a bad choice.

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7 Responses

  1. If you were to recommend a Lynch movie for someone who’s never seen one? Should I just start with his early ones and work my way through?

    • Certain don’t go for Dune after Eraserhead and The Elephant Man.

      I got hooked on Lynch by Twin Peaks. Like a lot of the director’s work, I found that it was fantastic and amazing at points (the second half of the first season), but also fell of the wagon (the second season). However, if I were to recommend films, I’m going to be very conventional. In rough order of pop culture preference:

      Blue Velvet
      The Elephant Man
      Mullholland Drive
      The Straight Story

      “Blue Velvet” is generally agreed to be Lynch’s “classic” and captures a lot of his core themes. “Mullholland Drive” is perhaps the best executed (in my opinion) of his abstract films. “The Straight Story” and “The Elephant Man” are just really good films. Those would be essential, and then you veer into film buff land – it gets weirder and more erratic after that. But it’s never boring.

      • Ha ha, I’ve seen enough clips and scenes to know to stay far away from Dune.

        Blue Velvet it is, then!

  2. Very good review, and I like the blog a lot!

    This film is a real guilty pleasure of mine, I often think of it along with two other films, True Romance and Natural Born Killers, for some reason these three films are inseparably linked in my mind, but they are all favourites.

    Anyway, a very interesting review, it’s cool to read about this film as it rarely gets mentioned…

    • Thanks Jack, I try to take a nice mix of new and old, pop and not – variety, after all, is the spice of life.

  3. You’re reviews are always so much better than any I could ever come up with. Stop making me feel bad, guy!

    What exactly did you think of Willem Dafoe’s character, anyway?

    • Thanks, but I think I lack focus and structure, to be honest. Even reading back over some of my reviews it’s hard to tell if I love or hate a film (maybe because it’s often both, in different ways).

      I love the way the character was just so deeply unpleasant. Not only in his actions, or his decaying teeth or his character, but in everything. Just sleaze and excess, the darkside of American capitalism, preaching sex and violence – demanding everything now, because he’s entitled to it. He’s kinda like an extension of Frank Booth, except that he’s much younger – Nicolas Cage’s Sailor is defined a lot be his outdated quirks (snake skin jacket, Elvis numbers, and old-fashioned cadillac), while Dafoe’s character is a much more modern and soulless counterpoint (it’s worth remarking that he seems like a relatively new arrival in town). Sailor was about rebellion against a crooked society – the teenager trying to find his way – but Dafoe is about violence and destruction for its own sake – the man lost.

      Of course, my interpretation is likely way out and completely off-base, but I love that Lynch’s films provoke those sorts of random thoughts.

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