Jarv’s Birthday Series Redux: Wild at Heart (1990)
Welcome back to the Birthday Series. This time around, I have, as noticed, developed a far more high-brow list than the previous run. So, I’ve endured the quirky melodrama of Almodovar, and now I’m girding up my loins to take on the master of surrealist incomprehensibility, David Lynch. The film in question was the surprise Palme D’Or Winner, and features one of Nicholas Cage’s most definitively crazy performances: Wild at Heart (24th August in the UK, 17th August in the USA). Variously described as being the bastard lovechild of Badlands and the Wizard of Oz, Wild at Heart is an iconic American road trip movie; a star-crossed love-film languishing amongst the freaks and degenerates of an American underclass overlooked by most film makers.
May contain one of the most spectacular head explosions ever filmed and spoilers below.
Sailor and Lulu are in love, but unfortunately, Lulu’s mother Marietta is insane. Fluctuating between wanting to fuck Sailor, and wanting to have him killed, she’s doing her best to put the kibosh on their relationship. After Sailor brutally beats a hitman to death, he’s sentenced to prison, and Marietta assumes this will be the end. Unfortunately for her, this is only the first 5 minutes of the film. Sailor is paroled and the first thing on his agenda is to hook up with his “peanut” and drive on a madcap road trip to New Orléans and then a surreal town called Big Tuna. Obviously, there’s naff all to do on these trips, so our lovers will have to punctuate their journey with massive amounts of grimy sex and seemingly random acts of sickening violence.
In the meantime, Marietta has hired her lover Jonny Farragut to track down her missing daughter, and when he’s proving to be too slow goes off the deep end completely and hires the enigmatic Santos, who demands Farragut as his price. Once in Big Tuna, Sailor and Lulu fall in with a band of twisted misfits, including Bobby Peru and Perdita Durango, before a hit disguised as a heist consigns Sailor back to the slammer. Nevertheless, true love will win out, and after his second parole Sailor is reunited with Lulu and his son Pace to drive off into the sunset with Marietta having gone completely batshit insane from her jealousy.
That is possibly one of the most challenging plot synopsis that I’ve ever written. Lynch is driving the bus here, so what this amounts to is some stunning imagery and cinematography capturing a veritable parade of oddballs and lowlife vermin. Plot in several Lynch films is an almost incidental consideration, notably Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and the execrable Inland Empire are all varying degrees of inaccessible, and while Wild at Heart is far more coherent than these (particularly the latter), it’s not plain sailing by any stretch of the imagination.
Essentially, this is a fairly simple story- it’s basically a seedy love on the road tale. However, being Lynch Wild at Heart is jammed full of a plethora of frankly bizarre supporting characters. Take, for example, the death of Johnny. He’s murdered at the culmination of a frankly bizarre voodoo ritual conducted by crippled hitwoman Juana Durango (Grace Zabriskie) and her lover. The whole sequence is so utterly mental as to become disturbing, and that’s before I even get on to the sheer lunacy of Bobby Peru and his stumpy teeth.
The acting here is good. Cage is hilarious, being completely OTT, as only he can. He plays Sailor as a kind of white-trash knight of the road, and his performance totally fits a character that wears a snake-skin jacket as “a symbol of my individuality, and my belief… in personal freedom. ” Laura Dern tries to play up the more kittenish side of Lulu, and with reasonable success, but she’s clearly playing second fiddle to Cage. In terms of support, Diane Ladd is stupendous as the increasingly bizarre Marietta, and Harry Dean Stanton stoic in adversity as Farragut. Isabella Rossellini is hot, but frankly wasted, as Perdita, and the villain prize goes to Willem Dafoe’s thwarted attempt to chew (he can’t because he’s got stumpy teeth) scenery as Peru.
As good as the acting, and as odd as the film is, there are three real features of Wild at Heart to make it almost essential watching. The first is that, unlike most Lynch, it’s actually intentionally funny. There are many laugh out loud funny lines in the film, mostly from Sailor, but special mention to the hilarious post-beating “I’d like to apologize to you gentlemen for referring to you all as homosexuals. You taught me a valuable lesson in life. ” The parade of oddities also includes some genuinely funny touches, such as Lulu’s mentalist cousin (Crispin Glover) who “once put a cockroach on his anus”. It’s the laughter, actually, that helps the film pass so easily, and the levity makes it feel more accessible than the relentlessly glum Lynch films such as Eraserhead.
Wild at Heart also looks fantastic. The colours are deep and rich, the settings ooze a primal heat and the film really does feel “hotter than Georgia Asphalt”. The relentless barrage of grubby sex and nudity doesn’t hurt this, but Lynch shoots it in deep colours and even manages to imbue a run down motel room in New Mexico with a kind of gutter cool. He also plies several of his stock image tricks, with a burning match forming the link between scenes on more than one occasion. As a piece of visual cinema, Wild at Heart is one of the finest of its time.
Then there’s the soundtrack- unfairly blamed for catapulting crooning douchebag Chris Isaak to fame with Wicked Game, Wild at Heart has actually a really good soundtrack that not only fits perfectly with what moves on screen, but the sleazy sounding jazz score seems to heighten the “cool” factor of the film (which is already really high).
Overall, Wild at Heart is a very good film, that almost flirts with greatness on occasion. It’s not as good as The Elephant Man or Blue Velvet, but it is clearly in the top tier of Lynch films. Wild at Heart may well be a parade of typically Lynchian freaks, but it’s hugely stylish, fantastic looking and genuinely cool. As such, it can have 3 Dorothy’s in the Wizard of Oz out of a possible 4, and I really do recommend it.
Not least of which is because I’m scared by the image of Ladd with all the makeup smeared across her face.
Next up is Baseball in the minor leagues with Bull Durham, a film I haven’t seen since I was a teenager, but one I don’t forgive for trying to make Susan Sarandon attractive.
The Full List for the Birthday Series Redux:
- 2011- The Skin I Live In (2.5 out of 4)
- 2010- The Last Exorcism (2.5 out of 4)
- 2009- Post Grad (1 out of 4)
- 2008- The House Bunny (1 out of 4)
- 2007- Knocked Up (1 out of 4)
- 2006- Volver (1 out of 4)
- 2005- Red Eye (2 out of 4)
- 2004- Dead Clowns (Orangutan of Doom)
- 2003- Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (1 out of 4)
- 2002- Talk to Her (4 out of 4)
- 2001- Jeepers Creepers (2 out of 4)
- 2000- Gossip (1 out of 4)
- 1999- All About My Mother (1 out of 4)
- 1998- The X-Files (1 out of 4)
- 1997- Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (2 out of 4)
- 1996- The Last Supper (3 out of 4)
- 1995- The Usual Suspects (4 out of 4)
- 1994- Color of Night (2 out of 4)
- 1993- Surf Ninjas (Orangutan of Doom)
- 1992- The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (2 out of 4)
- 1991- Pump Up the Volume ( 3 out of 4)
- 1990- Wild at Heart (3 out of 4)
- 1989- Bull Durham
- 1988- Crossing Delancey
- 1987- The Big Easy
- 1986- Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
- 1985- Better off Dead
- 1984- Oxford Blues
- 1983- MetalStorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn
- 1982- The Thing
- 1981- Honky Tonk Freeway
- 1980- Schock
- 1979- Rich Kids
- 1978- Coma