1990; a different time, when violence in movies was a big issue and David Lynch was the go-to auteur of the day. Wild at Heart took home the big prize at Cannes, but was controversial and divisive in reputation. Resurfacing in HD on Netflix, it’s not looked so good since the initial release; pan and scan VHS reduced the size, scope and impact of the film.
Lynch was on the brink of the game-changing Twin Peaks at this point; cult hits (Eraserhead) big-budget flops (Dune) and a celebrated comeback (Blue Velvet) had established him as a unique voice, but Wild at Heart sees him adapting Barry Gifford’s novel, and the usual Lynchian bells and whistles are artfully used to tell a remarkably straightforward story here.
The subject is youth, youth gone wild; Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) are crazy, for life, love, sex and each other. Of course, her momma doesn’t approve; Diane Ladd’s turn as Marietta Fortune eats up the screen as she devolves into the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz. Sailor serves years in jail for killing one of her goons, and when he picks up where he left off with Lula, Fortune isn’t prepared to let bygones by bygones; she sends various nefarious parties in pursuit.
Harry Dean Stanton is a sweaty private eye, while there’s stand-out turns from Lynch regulars Grace Zabriskie, Jack Nance, Freddie Jones and Sherilyn Fenn. But the second half of the film belongs to Willem Dafoe’s villainous Bobby Peru, who presents himself as a sexual threat to Lula and a moral threat to Sailor; getting involved in a bank-robbery in the small town of Big Tuna proves to be a big mistake for all parties, and the pay-off is striking and grisly as a dog carrying a severed hand across the street.
Lynch’s shock tactics have sustained his reputation, but rarely have they been so closely allied to a conventional B-movie narrative; like the abstruse codes of Twin Peaks, Lost Highway and Mullholland Drive, Wild at Heart is weird and wonderful, but unlike those beloved, evasive texts, doesn’t require an academic thesis or a dozen internet forums to unravel a meaning. Cage and Dern are fresh as paint, and their relationship is immediately iconic; Wild at Heart looks different thirty years later, and in a good way. Hailed as self-indulgence at the time, it’s actually pin-sharp, on-message and an exciting, threatening trip to the wild heart of an American nightmare