I have a large number of older David Lynch movies I have to get around to watching, especially to build excitement for the rare chance that I may actually get to see his new piece, Inland Empire. I've seen most of them, but it's been so long that I really have no memory whatsoever. The only film I can remember from start to finish is Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Today I started my Lynch extravaganza, and I plan to continue it over my break.
Wild At Heart is among Lynch's more linear pieces, and this is probably because it's based on a novel (Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula by Barry Gifford). There tends to be a pattern to Lynch's work: if it springs entirely from his mind, it is an iconic and often wholly incomprehensible Lynch piece (see: Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, among others). When the work is based on another piece--whether it be a real-life occurrence or a novel--it is easier to follow, yet still marked with Lynch's fingerprints (see also: The Straight Story, The Elephant Man).
And boy, are his fingerprints all over this one. Anybody who has watched multiple Lynch pictures will know that there are recurring motifs--images or sounds that intrigue the director. Fire is one of those things, and it plays a huge role in the picture. Not only is fire an essential part of the story (it is the demise of one key character), but it appears interstitially during jump cuts. Lynch is, perhaps, best known for his use of fire in Twin Peaks and its subsequent film adaptation, Fire Walk With Me. More common in the auteur's repertoire is the use of slow motion. It only appears to be used in two establishing shots of a junky apartment in New Orleans, but it adds the unsettling, dreamlike Lynch quality to the scenes. Other familiar elements appear as well (the yellow lines passing on the road, a'la Lost Highway, for instance), but in Wild At Heart, unlike, say, Mulholland Drive, they are not used to tell the story.
The essential Lynchian theme is the collision of idyllic, dreamlike Americana contrasted starkly with either brutal violence or brazen sexuality. This film has plenty of those collisions. Much to the delight of all the women in the crowd, Nicholas Cage performs Elvis Presley's ballad "Love Me," sandwiched between a barfight and an intense lovemaking session with his girlfriend. A brutal skull-crushing is underscored by Angelo Badalamenti's 1950's-esque dream pop.
The most incomprehensible (and yet the least Lynchesque) element of the film is the allusion to The Wizard of Oz. I've very infrequently seen Lynch reference other films within his own work. Certainly, he pays due to famous starlets of the golden age of cinema, but other narratives seem to have been off-limits. However, The Wizard of Oz is all over this piece. Lula (played by Laura Dern) references her homicidal mother as the Wicked Witch. Lula recalls her mother's cackle as her father was murdered. She sees an eerie, broom-riding specter following her car. In the end, Lula even vanquishes her mother's influence by tossing water onto a photograph of her (which shortly thereafter disappears, steaming). After a particularly brutal scene of sexuality involving Willem Dafoe's character Bobby Peru, Lula clicks the heels of her red slippers, almost in a cry to return to a place she could be comfortable. When that reprieve doesn't come, she slumps into a ball in the motel room. It is almost as if Lula lives her life in the fantasy world of Oz in an attempt to come to terms with all of the terrible things that had happened to her. In the end, it is only fitting that she is saved by the Good Witch.
Wild At Heart is not mindless entertainment, obviously, but it is an interesting film, and it stands up to aimless analysis. The film was made during the production run of Twin Peaks, and it's interesting to see so many cast members in roles so different from their television personae (Grace Zabriski, David Patrick Kelly, Fenn, Jack Nance, Sheryl Lee, and Frances Bay all make appearances).. In addition, there are some truly disturbing (Defoe) and moving (Dern, as well as Peaks' Fenn) performances that are entirely worth making this film part of your collection. So do it already.