Wild at heart: David Lynch’s psychotic Wizard of Oz

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

Wild at Heart, a hyper, often violent and oddly romantic take on The Wizard of Oz, starts off with a lit match and a brutal attack, and ends with a visit from Glenda the Good Witch and Nicolas Cage singing “Love me tender”. For all its wackiness it finds David Lynch at his deprived Americana best.

Beginning in Cape Fear, South Carolina, Sailor Ripley (Cage, in what is arguably his best performance) is a petty criminal, deeply in love with an oversexed white trash Marilyn Monroe wannabe Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern). Her deranged, homicidal, overbearing mother Marietta (Diane Ladd) works to end, her daughters relationship, and in the process gets Sailor sent away to prison. Ten months later he walks out, slips into a snakeskin jacket and rides off with Lula heading for New Orleans. Their followed by Marietta’s detective boyfriend (Harry Dean Stanton), and a dangerous hit man (J.E. Freeman) she hired to kill Sailor in order to protect her biggest secret.

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What starts off as a fairly straight forward road trip love story quickly devolves into a terrifying and frequently funny trip down the yellow brick road. If you strip back the layers of weird and sex, Wild at Heart is at its core a love story.

Lynch has always played with what we perceive as normal. Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks effectively blew up the untouchable image that had been created for middle America. Wild at Heart is a love story like only David Lynch could do. As twisted and bizarre as it can get around them, Sailor and Lula stand strong in the middle even when there faced with another prison stint, and an eerie encounter with a freakish criminal (Willem Dafoe).

Lynch demands a lot from his audience but the reward is always worth it. That’s never been more true than with Wild at heart. The movie is a little bit more than twisted and frankly downright weird, but there’s something fascinating about the way Lynch lays everything out. He often uses dizzying images of things like fire, which is a heady metaphor for Sailor and Lula’s entire relationship; more than once the couple finds themselves driving into the fire and finding “death on the yellow brick road”.  Some of the best moments come when Lynch mixes the old and new; for example, when Lula and Sailor visit a punk club early in the film and Sailor woos Lula with Elvis Presley’s “Love Me”.

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That’s one of the reasons Lynch’s work plays so well, especially in this film. He takes the characters that would normally be regulated to the background because they were to strange and makes them the main characters and the ones you want to have a happy ending. Because Lula and Sailor are so strange we’re treated to supporting characters who are even stranger, like Lula’s mentally disturbed cousin (Crispin Glover) who has an affection for cockroaches in his underwear.

By setting up Sailor as the romantic rather than the loose cannon who’s a less than smart sidekick, and Lula as his equal, Lynch gives his viewers a real treat. These lovers don’t have much but they rely on each other and that’s enough. So yes Lula “the whole world is wild at heart and weird on top”, and thank God for that because Wild at Heart stands as one of David Lynch’s greatest productions.

Tressa Eckermann

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