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January 18, 2009

Wild at Heart

1990, Dir. by David Lynch

What would have happened if Elvis and Marilyn were star-crossed lovers on a cross-country road trip to hell? That seems to be the question asked by David Lynch's 1990 film Wild at Heart, but - as we've come to expect from the man behind Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive - it's not the only question the film presents. Lynch provides a twisting, twisted ride that grips the viewer with a nightmarish tone; but also seems incomprehensible upon first glance and features some maddeningly overblown and confusing technical and dramatic touches.

The Plot
Despite my first statement, the film is not actually about Mr. Presley and Ms. Monroe, though it's clear throughout (and is acknowledged by all involved) that the characters were modeled after these icons. Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern star as Sailor and Lula, whom me meet on the night of a brawl that ends with Sailor killing a man that attacked the couple during some sort of social function. Sailor is sent away for manslaughter, and we then find him released 7 years later and put on a plane full of other inmates.

Wait - that was a different Nic Cage movie. This is the one where he's sent away for manslaughter and released 2 years later to reunite with Luna. My bad

Moving on, Luna's mother (played by Dern's real mother, Diane Ladd, is furious about her daughter's choice of lifestyle and beau, and takes the next logical step - enlisting both of her boyfriends (a timid crook played by Harry Dean Stanton and a unstable gangster played by J.E. Freeman) to hunt down and dispose of Sailor (which leads to vicious torture scene, another Lynch staple). In the meantime, and without knowing mommie dearest's plan, Sailor and Luna set off for California, meeting odd characters and the hitmen sent to destroy them along the way.

The Good
The most endearing quality of Lynch's film is the mood of the proceedings. The film references pop culture's icons I mentioned (as well as the Wizard of Oz?) often, but the biggest theme is focused on the characters being trapped in a hell they can't escape. There are some frustrating and annoying tricks Lynch uses to achieve this (most notably frequent recurring images of fire and burning, and unecessary and grating "stingers" or screams in the soundtrack), but the film has moments that achieve great tension and haunt the viewer even after the film ends. Most notable is a dreamlike scene in which Sailor and Lula happen upon an automobile accident and find a delirious young woman (the gorgeous Sherilyn Fenn of Twin Peaks and Of Mice and Men) who doesn't realize the situation she's in. There are plenty of great shots that build on this idea and help the viewer believe the characters are actually in some sort of purgatory, they seem undercut by some overly aggressive symbolism by the director.

Cage is admirable in the lead, and Willem Dafoe shows up and adds a delicious sleaze to the proceedings in the final hour. Ladd's performance as the mother was applauded by critics, and even garnered an Oscar nomination, but I found her to be overacting in key scenes, and was not so impressed. Dern had the same problem at times, but I felt her performance as Lula was more acceptable in the long run. Cage and Dern's relate to each other well throughout, and without that the film would probably be near unwatchable. The film relies heavily on Sailor and Lula being "straight" characters trapped in a more confusing universe, and Cage and Dern keep that dynamic alive throughout the film.

The Bad
By now you may have noticed that I'm having trouble finishing a sentence without stating a failure within the movie. Unfortunately, the film is inconsistent in almost every way. There are some great scenes, and there are some equally confusing scenes. There are some interesting psychological insinuations, but there are also some strange scenes that push the film into silly territory. And this goes on in regard to all parts of the film - the acting, the music/sound editing, the dialogue, etc. Lynch never seems to have a full handle on where he wants the film to go from a dramatic standpoint. I'm not sure that's ever been something he has worried about, but from a viewer's standpoint, it's frustrating.

Random Moments (and we've got a lot of 'em)
  • Lula's mother randomly cuts her wrist and covers herself in blood at one moment, before calling up her first boyfriend (Stanton) to check on the assassination progress.
  • Cage does Presley decently, including performing two songs.
  • There's some creepy voodoo stuff, which leads to a torture scene.
  • Sheryl Lee, who starred in Lynch's Twin Peaks movie two years later (and who I thus confuse with Sherilyn Fenn, even though the look nothing alike) makes a cameo during the goofy climax.
  • What's a good way to introudce a creepy Willem Dafoe? Well according to Lynch and the film, it's to flank him with three 400+ pound naked women. No joke.
  • Oh yeah, and King of the Creeps Crispin Glover also appears in a flashback as Lula's crazy cousin.
The Verdict
If I were someone more interested in the art of filmmaking, I might be more impressed with Wild at Heart. As someone just looking for entertainment and a story, I can't help but be disappointed. Lynch shows repeatedly that he can tell a story and make it dramatic, but he seems more interested in taking the viewer for a mental ride that's full of unanswered riddles. I can't completely deny the film's merits, as it does work as a two hour nightmare, but it doesn't do enough to make it as memorable as Lynch's more known films (and I'll still take The Elephant Man over any of 'em) nor enough to make it an enjoyable experience. When it all comes down to the end, the film is wild in too many places than just the heart.

The Mike's Rating: Time Burner

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