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Ricky D’s Favourite Cult Films #28: ‘Wild at Heart’

Ricky D’s Favourite Cult Films #28: ‘Wild at Heart’


Wild at Heart
Directed by David Lynch
Written by David Lynch
1990, USA

David Lynch evokes a surreal world in Wild at Heart, a film brimming over with explicit sex, murder, rape, eccentric kitsch and sleaze. There is some rather horrifyingly violence, beginning with the opening scene where a man is beaten to death, to a moment later in the film where a shotgun to the head sends someone’s brains splattered across the frame. Based on the novel by Barry Gifford, and the winner of the Palme d’Or, Wild at Heart is a perverse and over-the top Southern Gothic thriller best described as a cross between Natural Born Killers and Badlands. Here, the director is working with pulp conventions, tangential metaphors, and interwoven into the cross-country adventure are numerous references to Lynch’s favourite movie, The Wizard of Oz. Appearing is both the Wicked Witch and the Good, along with a crystal ball, ruby slippers and other strange characters immersed in stranger fantasies. It’s a road movie about a pair of seemingly doomed young Southern lovers named Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) and a hot-tempered, ex-con Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage), on the run from Cape Fear, North Carolina to Big Tuna, Texas. Luna’s wicked witch of a mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd), fearing Sailor’s knowledge of her plot to murder her husband, arranges with a mobster (J. E. Freeman) to have Sailor killed. Sent to track them down is “black angel” Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) and Perdita Durango (Isabella Rossellini). With Wild at Heart, Lynch presents an adult fairy tale, brought to life with vivid imagery, outrageous performances, and the sweet sounds of Nicolas Cage singing the songs of Elvis Presley.

Instead of repeating the conventions of his previous feature, the director replaces Blue Velvet’s cool palette with one of hot oranges, burning reds and bright yellows. Using a special lens, Lynch is able to change the colours on the spur of the moment – often sampling the colours of the rainbow, particularly during the scenes of love making. The effect works well against a relationship of uncontrolled passion, as opposed to the cold blue hues heightening Velvet’s uneasy portrayal of sexuality. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes and David Lynch construct a bizarre landscape, and the kinetic camerawork and editing convey a world spiralling out of control; meanwhile, the reoccurring use of fire sends smoke signals throughout. In addition, Lynch’s typically meticulous sound design, along with the hip rock tunes and Angelo Badalamenti’s soulful score, help make Wild at Heart Lynch’s best sounding film.

Wild at Heart often feels like a forerunner to Natural Born Killers. It is a movie that explores the underbelly of American society, and finding love in hell. Sex is central to Wild at Heart in the same way it was in Blue Velvet, and like Blue Velvet, the sudden ideal ending of perfect happiness is drenched in irony and sincerity. Wild at Heart is remarkable for its blend of divergent tones and styles and the way it seamlessly weaves between violence, dark comedy and perversion. David Lynch doesn’t tell stories as much as he shows them; Wild at Heart is basically a series of vignettes, but truth be told, they lack the dramatic tension and haunting mystery of some of his better works. Like most of his films, Wild at Heart draws heated responses from viewers, but no matter how weird, wild and excessive it is, Heart seems more prone to provoking a reaction than embedding a deeper mystery.

The cast is one of the biggest ensembles for any Lynch film. The Rogues Gallery includes W. Morgan Sheppard as Mr. Reindeer, a mysterious crime lord who sits on a toilet sipping tea while surrounded by topless women; Freddie Jones as a bartender, and Isabella Rossellini as the bleached-blonde assassin, Perdita Durango. Isabella Rossellini cameos, as does Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks), who floats down in a magical bubble at the picture’s end.  Also appearing are John Lurie and Scott Coffey as the many eccentrics that populate Texas, as well as several cast members who were pulled from David Lynch’s then-active TV series, Twin Peaks –  Sherilyn Fenn, Grace Zabriskie, David Patrick Kelly, Sheryl Lee and Jack Nance all starred in the series.

Note: The character of Sailor’s former girlfriend Perdita Durango later became the central character in the second of Barry Gifford’s books, which was filmed by Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia, titled Perdita Durango/Dance with the Devil (1997).

Here are my favourite characters/performances:


Girl in accident (Sherilyn Fenn)

7- Girl in accident (Sherilyn Fenn)

Wild at Heart contains many powerful moments – particularly one sequence in which Sailor and Lula come upon the scene of a highway-car-wreck, on the way to Big Tuna, and find Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks) wandering in a bloody daze by the side of the road. Lynch’s ability to disturb through carefully contrived atmosphere is unparalleled; what begins as a disturbing sequence, quickly shifts into the film’s most deeply moving scene, thanks in equal parts to Fred Elmes’ elegant camerawork and the performances of Cage, Dern and Fenn. (watch a clip)

wild at heart blu-ray1x

6: Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage)

Nicolas Cage, wearing a snakeskin jacket, which he tells us with a straight face is “a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom,” is fascinating to watch. Cage is always best when his role requires him to play over-the-top, and here the actor doesn’t hold back. The innocent-like Sailor isn’t a good man, but one can’t deny his love for Luna. Smoking two cigarettes at a time and doing a self-conscious Elvis impersonation, Cage gives his all to the lead role.

Crispin Glover - Dell - Wild at Heart

5- Jingle Dell (Crispin Glover)

Meanwhile there are all kinds of seemingly unrelated sequences, probably the most bizarre belonging to Crispin Glover as Dell. A cousin to Luna, this lunatic loves to shove cockroaches in his underwear, and believes aliens with black gloves are out to abduct him. (watch a clip)


4:  Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd)

Diane Ladd (Laura Dern’s mother in real-life) gives an amazingly over-the-top performance for which she was surprisingly nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost. Here she flexes her wild side, smearing her face with blood-red lipstick and crawling across the living room floor like a possessed feline.


3: Juana Durango (Grace Zabriskie)

Grace Zabriskie appears as a member of the trio of deranged assassins. Sporting a clubfoot, she and her pals kidnap Harry Dean Stanton’s Johnnie Farragut and take him Buffalo hunting. The infamous scene had test audiences walking out, leaving Lynch no choice but to leave some of it on the cutting room floor.


2- Lula Fortune (Laura Dern)

Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage have undeniable chemistry, but Dern easily steals the spotlight as Lula Fortune, a 20-year-old gum-popping Southern sexpot and the heart of the film. This is the second of three films in which she collaborated with David Lynch, the first being Blue Velvet and the last, Inland Empire. Laura Dern struts her sexiness – and this is one of the best pieces of acting she has done. In one roadside scene, Laura Dern and a wildly roundhouse-kicking Nicolas Cage begin dancing impromptu to a heavy metal thrash song on the radio, but when the camera cranes back revealing the sunset in the horizon, the soundtrack fades into classical music, and so does their dance. As the two embrace, it becomes clear this is the quintessential scene of the entire film.


1: Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe)

Along the way, Luna and Sailor meet the psychotic ex-marine named Bobby Peru, played by Willem Dafoe, who is outfitted with rotten teeth and a pencil moustache a la John Waters. The scene in which Peru terrorizes Lula in her motel room is one of the finest scenes of any Lynch outing, and the one true moment when Wild at Heart attains that quintessentially Lynch-like quality we all love. Lula’s fear and disgust melt into confusion and desire, and slowly, as Bobby whispers his vulgar request, the scene which begins with uncomfortable laughter shifts to terrifying madness and ends with an unsettling eroticism. Peru is without apology – his every action is a pure expression of his twisted desires – and Dafoe delivers one of the sleaziest performances of any Lynch film.

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