So once again we have survived.

Wild at Heart

tn_wildatheartSailor Ripley is the character who was born for Nicolas Cage to play. He’s the ultimate bad boy who you wouldn’t bring home to your parents, an old timey hoodlum ex-con, self-conscious about his rebellious image, and obsessed with Elvis, who he calls “E” for short. He talks like him, combs his hair kind of like him, sings his love songs only at important romantic milestones. He and his young girlfriend Lula (Laura Dern) love to dance together, and at one point they pull their Thunderbird convertible to the side of the highway, play heavy metal and dance, which to him mostly means jumping around doing karate kicks and punches. They don’t have to discuss that they’re going to do this, so you gotta assume it’s one of their regular activities.

Sailor wears a snakeskin jacket, which he proudly says on more than one occasion “represents a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.” He’s a self-professed “robber and a manslaughterer” and hasn’t “had any parental guidance.” He started smoking when he was “about four,” and cigarette brand loyalty seem to be one tradition he and Lula inherit from their parents. He knows many unsavory characters from his time as an underworld driver, including Lula’s mother Marietta Fortune (Dern’s real life mother Diane Ladd), who is so serious about keeping Sailor away from her daughter that she takes a hit out on him. She’s also so wicked that she frequently goes on cackling jags and is several times depicted as the WIZARD OF OZ witch, flying on a broom or watching them in a crystal ball.

Marietta is also a character who’s real good at making you uncomfortable. She seems to spend every second of her life either in emotional turmoil or faking it. She’s always crying, having fits and throwing herself into the arms of men, from the overly kind (Harry Dean Stanton as private eye Johnnie Farragut) to the evil (J.E. Freeman as the gangster Marcellus Santos). But even when she’s by herself she’s a mess. In one scene she paints her entire face red with slipstick, then pukes.

mp_wildatheartShe’s easy to hate, but I kinda felt sorry for her too because early in the movie Lula tells a story about being raped by her father’s business associate when she was a kid and how her mother didn’t care at all. But we see in a flashback that in fact Marietta discovered the abuse, beat on the guy and then had him killed. So it’s not fair to say she didn’t do anything.

WILD AT HEART is the fifth feature directed by David Lynch, based on a novel by Barry Gifford (who later wrote LOST HIGHWAY for Lynch). I think it’s best appreciated as a juvenile delinquent drive-in movie from another dimension. Sailor gets out of the joint and runs off with Lula, trying not to get killed. It’s a road movie without much of a goal. They drive, have sex, dance, drive, have more sex, drive some more. Along the way they encounter bizarre Lynchian characters, many of them elderly, standing in the background, saying odd things and quite possibly played by actual crazies.

The worst guy they meet is Willem Dafoe as Bobby Peru, a slimy redneck variation on his biker character from THE LOVELESS, sporting fake gums and teeth like Chop Top, looking legitimately terrifying with a panty on his head, talking about himself in the third person, pushing Sailor back into a life of crime. Meanwhile he pushes himself inappropriately into Lula’s hotel room to “use the head,” pisses with the door open and brags about the power of his stream. This is a funny kind of sleaze, but it’s leading into a scene where he nearly rapes her only for the further humiliation of proving a connection between her childhood abuse and current sexuality. And this arguably isn’t the most upsetting degradation of Dern in the movie – that might be the shots of her crying and bloody-mouthed as a 12 year old Lula after being raped. The movie has a weird mix of goofiness and the truly disturbing, but I guess that’s Lynch’s thing.

still_wildatheartI’m not sure I’ll ever be a full-fledged member of the David Lynch cult. But I definitely dug this more this time than when I saw it many years ago. Part of that of course is from a growing appreciation for Cage, who gets to do a little mega-acting within his weirdo James Dean routine. He flips out a little and finds many uses for his rock star posing. My favorite is when they’re grooving out int he car and for some reason one of his dance moves is to keep saluting over and over again. I noticed he also does it once in the roadside karate scene.

It’s easy to argue that Elvis is over-used as a generic icon of Americana, but I like how they do it here. After Sailor beats up a guy for rubbing against Lula on the dance floor (he’s so with it he throws his cigarette on the ground, then knocks the guy over so his hand lands right on it) he commandeers the heavy metal band Powermad so he can croon “Love Me” to Lula. Not only does the singer toss him the mic without hesitation, but the women at the show scream for him like it’s Beatlemania. This is not the real world, but it’s the perfect world for Lynch and Cage to explore together. And if it’s all an excuse just to have a movie end on Cage singing “Love Me Tender” then it’s okay, it’s worth it.

I’m less on board with all the WIZARD OF OZ references. I’m not sure why it’s such a major theme, and it seems a little too obvious a choice for random weirdness. I guess it gives Marietta an excuse to be a wicked witch, but does she need an excuse? Crispin G. Lover’s character didn’t need an excuse to put roaches in his butt (one of many little tangential anecdotes the characters tell).

Maybe the idea is that Lula feels comfort in clicking her heels together even though who is she fooling, the home there’s no place like is where some old slob raped her, and where her crazy mom is, and where she’s running the fuck away from. Her dad was burned alive at home. Home’s not that great. Though clearly hotels aren’t always better.

I don’t know. Because of elements like the Oz thing I used to think this movie was just self-conscious weirdness. I think one reason it works better for me now is that I’m far enough along my path of cinematic enlightenment that I don’t worry as much what other people think. I still believe Lynch fills most of his movies with surreal nonsense that his legions of worshippers read too much deep, intentional meaning into. Yeah, but so what? Shouldn’t matter to me when I watch it. I also suspect that some people respond to baldly passionate or “wild at heart” couples like these two, Mickey and Mallory, Romeo and Juliet etc. thinking that’s what love is about and not recognizing that they’re just young horny dummies who don’t know any better. But again, so what? If they want to find this romantic it’s a free country.

still_wildatheart2What I always have dug about Lynch is his sense of atmosphere, odd rhythms and tonal mixes that put you off balance and can really get under your skin. I would say this one has more jokes and silliness in it than LOST HIGHWAY or MULLHOLLAND DRIVE, and comically abrupt scene transitions and stuff like there’s at least a whiff of parody there. But at the same time it has so many senseless, nightmarish faces in it. Look at these motherfuckers! It’s genuinely creepy in a way that kind of inexplicably claws into your self-conscious instead of pushing the standard horror buttons.

It’s also the little things, like Lynch’s use of primarily 60+ year old supporting players in a movie for 20 year olds that make it feel one of a kind. He’s luring the college kids into a strange new, old world.

Cage has some really still_wildatheart3goofy lines (“Man, I had a boner with a capital ‘o’,”) and is funny and lovable like he was in RAISING ARIZONA, but right in the opening scene he gets attacked by a hitman for allegedly trying to fuck Lula’s mother in the bathroom and he savagely bashes the guy’s skull on the ground until it kills him, then does a dramatic Elvis point to Marietta. That and the sudden headbanging guitar riffs that accompany it are a pretty harsh way to kick of the festivities. And you never know when it’s gonna happen again. You know what, I don’ t think this one’s gonna be like HONEYMOON IN VEGAS.

Okay, you won me over this time, WILD AT HEART. You’re a keeper after all. Happy Valentine’s Day President’s Day Weekend everybody.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, February 12th, 2015 at 5:28 pm and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “Wild at Heart”

  1. There’s a great book that came out a few years ago, “Lynch on Lynch” which contains a bunch of interviews with Lynch (naturally). At one point, the interview asks Lynch to clarify a theme in “Mulholland Dr.” and Lynch says something really interesting. I’m paraphrasing, but it goes like, “I like to work with abstractions. When you put words to abstractions, they lose their power.” And that’s probably the best way to watch his movies, just soak it all in. Trying to explain what exactly “Mulholland Dr.” means is kinda pointless. Creating a whole timeline or philosophical thesis to explain every event won’t make you like it anymore than you already do. How the film makes you feel is more important I think.

    I say this a diehard Lynch cultist of course!

  2. Ryan- I´ve read that book as well. And his movies are abstract but when I watch for instance LOST HIGHWAY and MULHOLLAND DRIVE they seem to make some kind of sense in the back of my head.

    Still, I have yet to see a Lynch film I didn´t enjoy. Even DUNE is fascinating as an experiment in art house sci fi schlock. And FIRE WALK WITH ME might be frustrating for some but it has some genuine creepy imagery and atmosphere.

  3. Hey look! I finally found me the perfect new Gravatar!

  4. Jesus Christ, Griff. Take that thing down. I still want to sleep tonight.

  5. Perdita Durango. Rosie Perez or Isabella Rossellini?

  6. And in two months time when you have switched back to an anime avatar your comment will make no sense.

  7. No brainer – Isabella. Sexy, sultry, dangerous.

  8. Poor Harry Dean Stanton. I think this movie actually does make a lot of sense, plot-wise, owing to the source material; though you can get lost in the abstract coloration, or abstractions. Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway are more like mobius strips. I’d heard that the author didn’t care for some of Lynch’s liberties with his novel; but, if he worked on Lost Highway, then it must have been OK in the end.

  9. Call me brainless, Darren, but I’m sort of leaning towards Rosie…

  10. Saw this when I was way to young. It really freaked me out. I thought it was just my age, then I saw Dune, Blue Velvet and others over the years and realised that Lynch’s films just creep me out. It’s good to be freaked out every now and then though, just not when you’re twelve.

  11. *too young* Shit.

  12. Nice Valentine’s Day pick. It might be my favorite thing about being a reader here that I get to revisit notable movies that I also originally watched carrying more cultural baggage than I do now. I watched this while working my way through the Lynch catalog, with too much mental space taken up at the time with what some people had said about them. Now, I enjoy his movies but don’t love them. They’re fun. I like the weirdness, without finding them cathartic.

  13. Rosie looks great in tight jeans, and sleeping with a tiger, but then she’s gotta go open her goddamn mouth and ruin everything.

  14. “And his movies are abstract but when I watch for instance LOST HIGHWAY and MULHOLLAND DRIVE they seem to make some kind of sense in the back of my head.”

    Yeah, that’s what I really like about Lynch. His best films really are coherent but I’ll damned if I can explain why. You get to the end of “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Dr.” and you’re like, “Yes, this is how it should be.”

  15. I first saw this in college (of course), and… I didn’t DIS-like it, but it just came across as a blur of random dream-stuff going on, so I spent the whole watching feeling like I should like this movie while not actually being able to engage with it.

    I caught up with it years later, and enjoyed it much, much more on the second go-around. Though I had seen it before, nothing about the first watch landed hard enough to make an impression, so I could enjoy the turns and surprises for what they were.

    It is, at core, a very basic crime/love story, which acts as a narrative core so the weirdness is just dressing.

  16. But wasn’t Peter Loew the character born to have Nicolas Cage play him?

  17. I believe it was Castor Troy whom Cage finally adopted as a youngling. But I give credit to Sailor for planting the seed of Peach Eating into his fertile mind, allowing Troy to express his unending love for this most wonderful act between a man and a peach.

  18. Grace Zabriskie has been tremendous in everything I’ve seen her in, but never as utterly terrifying as she is in her few short minutes of this film (though she came close in INLAND EMPIRE). I even watched that crappy HBO show where Hicks is a Mormon for way longer than I should have because her performance was so compelling.

    And I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: AVENGERS would have been a tolerable film if it just depicted a day in the life of Harry Dean Stanton’s character. He gets up, goes to work, there are some rumbling noises in the sky, some naked nude falls on his ass, he finishes his shift, traffic is heavier on the way home.

    There are deleted scenes to WILD AT HEART on the “Lime Green” box set, one of which, set in a bar, is fascinating.

    PS Gifford and Lynch co-wrote LOST HIGHWAY;it wasn’t a solo Gifford gig.

  19. “And I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: AVENGERS would have been a tolerable film if it just depicted a day in the life of Harry Dean Stanton’s character. He gets up, goes to work, there are some rumbling noises in the sky, some naked nude falls on his ass, he finishes his shift, traffic is heavier on the way home.”

    Apparently, they left some of the Harry Dean Stanton Avengers material on the cutting room floor. I was reading the AV Club’s random roles with HDS a while ago, and he was really noncommittal on everything. When they mentioned a role, he would pretty much say, “Yep, that was a good one” or “I don’t really remember that too well.” But when they ask about his cameo in Avengers, HDS becomes genuinely about the fact that they edited out part of his role in Avengers. It was the only time he ever gave much of an opinion on any of his roles over the years.

  20. So glad you came around on this one. So many great lines. And that ending is just fantastically romantic.

  21. I just listened to Lynch’s solo album CRAZY CLOWN TIME, for the first time. It’s as abstract as you’d expect, lots of dreamy, experimental, monlogue-ish songs set to some bluesy riffs, with a lot of synth work. Lynch does the vocals on most songs, mainly through filters. He knows he’s not a great singer, but he wants to create music anyway, good for him. Can’t say I’d listen to it again. Unless I was high, to get the most out of it.

  22. In short, this film is a masterpiece! For all involved: director, cast all the way down to catering.

  23. It’s not my favorite Lynch film, but man he knows how to depict the intertwining of beauty and horror. In this case, it’s those voluptuous shots of fire; you can almost feel yourself unable to resist being drawn into the damage. There’s real emotional inertia in his images. TWIN PEAKS achieves a similar effect with the wind gently rocking that forlorn traffic light.

    RBatty: In the same interview, Stanton says that silence is a powerful tool. Based on hims performance in PARIS TEXAS, I’m inclined to agree with him. Based on his performance in the interview, not so much. But I like how he seems to favor the roles that allow him to sing.

    Darren: The video for the song “Crazy Clown Time” is one of the most hilarious/horrific things I’ve ever seen.

  24. Jareth – One of my favorite Harry Dean Stanton stories comes from the director’s commentary on Repo Man. If I remember correctly, Alex Cox and Stanton were arguing about how he should play a particular scene. This went back and forth for a time when Stanton finally said to Cox, “I’ve worked with some of the greatest directors of all time, and do you know why they’re great?” Cox asked him, why? To which Stanton replied, “Because they let me do what I want!”

  25. Wow, that video of Crazy Clown Time is something else. Thanks Jareth. That deserves a link for those interested in Lynch’s latest suburban nightmare.

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