Wild at Heart, David Lynch’s surreal (what Lynch isn’t surreal except for the aptly titled Straight Story?) Bonnie and Clyde meets Wizard of Oz mash up, is one of my favorite Lynch films. I dig the simplicity of the plot (Sailor [Nicolas Cage] and Lula [Laura Dern] attempt to be together despite jail stints and Lula’s psychotic mother plotting against them with assassins and whatnot). But more than anything, I enjoy the constant movement necessary for a road movie because Lynch never has time to slow down and wallow in the weirdness, and neither does the audience. You’re forced to just go with it, and if you can embrace that, which I did, then it ends being Lynch’s most enjoyable (not necessarily best) film. I bought Wild at Heart a while back and never got around to watching it. After revisiting Lost Highway a few weeks ago, I figured it was time to watch this crazy movie again. Here are my thoughts.
The Film That Fixed, or Broke, Nicolas Cage
I’ve written more than enough about Nicolas Cage over the years, and at this point it’s become a bit of a cliché to celebrate the craziness of the eccentric actor. Everyone gets it: Cage is crazy, great, terrible, etc. Obviously, I’m a fan, and I do think of him as endlessly entertaining, even when he swings and misses. But when he swings and connects, it’s something very special. Wild at Heart is one of those connections.
At first, I was just going to focus on how David Lynch and Cage are perfect for each other because they’re both so weird, but that’s a bit too obvious. I don’t think I’d be breaking new ground by claiming these two dudes are on the strange side. So I wasn’t going to write about Cage’s performance much at all aside from pointing out a few moments I particularly enjoyed. Then I came across this bit of IMDb trivia: Nic Cage states that Wild at Heart helped him get away from method acting. David Lynch's spontaneous re-writes and the film's odd characters helped him be more playful with acting.
If that bit of trivia is true (for the sake of this article, I’m going to say it is, but I have not come across this fact anywhere else and, actually, the behind-the-scenes stuff I saw brought up how he stayed in character on set, but oh well...), then Wild at Heart is the film that broke, or fixed, Cage. Cage’s method acting had already produced a few great performances (Raising Arizona and Vampire’s Kiss are my favorites leading up to Wild at Heart), but it wasn’t until this movie that you start to see roles in which it seems like Cage is willing to change things up with the characters he portrays. That’s not to say that he didn’t bring something to the parts he played, he obviously did, especially with Vampire’s Kiss. But with Wild at Heart, he was allowed to deviate from the character on the page.
The best example of this is the inclusion of the snakeskin jacket Cage wears. He asked Lynch if he could wear it in the film, and then it became this recurring element in the movie. It’s not a coincidence that Cage’s line associated with the jacket concerns “individuality” and “personal freedom.” By wearing the jacket in this film, Cage was freed to start altering his roles in the future, for better or worse.
Certainly part of the reason Cage was/is allowed to do whatever he wants at times is because of his undulating star power. But I think the bigger part is that director’s see the value in letting Cage have a bit of freedom. Because of this freedom, we not only get exaggerated moments in big films (his moment dressed as a priest in Face/Off comes to mind), but we also get performances like Deadfall, which feel like complete Cage creations.
Cage’s performance in Deadfall is why his change after Wild at Heart could be seen as both breaking and fixing him. For me, it fixed him and allowed for his greatest, most entertaining work. For others, his eccentric performances might come across as distracting, over-the-top disasters that ruin the movie. I feel sorry for anyone who feels the latter. I’m glad Cage put on that literal and figurative snakeskin jacket, and I hope he never takes it off.
Embracing the Oddness
This is only the second time I have seen Wild at Heart, and I had forgotten how darkly funny and wacky this movie was. I found myself simply enjoying the film, which is odd for me, as I tend to try to decipher David Lynch movies.
Normally, the Random Thoughts section for any movie, but especially a David Lynch movie, would be the longest section. But when I got to the end of Wild at Heart, I realized I didn’t stop very often to make note of what was happening while I was watching. I couldn’t believe I had so few random thoughts about this batshit crazy Wizard of Oz sex fever dream. I think the all out assault of weird shit throughout the film was too much for me to stop and dwell on any of it. I mean, we’re talking about a movie in which a contract killer manager(?) takes a phone call while sitting on the toilet, drinking tea, and watching a nearly naked woman dance for him. When that’s going on in what should be a simple scene, I just can’t stop to try to decipher any of it because by the time I start to have a thought, something else even wackier happens. And that’s why I love this movie. It’s Lynch unhinged just doing whatever the fuck he wants, and I enjoy the film by just embracing the oddness of it rather than allowing myself to be distracted by it.
It’s one of the only weird Lynch movies that I can just turn my brain off and enjoy. I don’t feel the need to “figure” it out. I think it’s his most simply entertaining film, even with it being one of the weirdest at the same time. Even with all the Wizard of Oz stuff, I didn’t feel the need to try to assign each character to their Oz counterpart. It’s just a movie that is heavily influenced by that film to the point that it’s kind of a new, weirder and more adult version of that film.
The fact that this is a kind of version of Wizard of Oz means that the film has to be constantly moving. There’s not much time for Lynch to dwell on anything, no matter how strange and interesting it might be. Wild at Heart comes at you fast, and the two hour run time feels like an hour at most. Because of this, it wasn’t until it was over that I had time to gather my thoughts and consider some of the crazy shit going on in this movie. I wanted to list some of my favorite weird moments:
- Harry Dean Stanton watching a nature show and growling and shit.
- The mom covering herself in lipstick.
- The constant heavy metal riff segue.
- “Fucking field, let’s dance!”
- Willem Dafoe’s fucking teeth.
- Laura Dern just puking on the floor and leaving it.
- Crispin Glover as Cousin Dell...there’s too much going on it that sequence to narrow it down but here goes: dressing as Santa in the middle of the year, living in fear of aliens wearing black rubber gloves, making a hundred sandwiches, putting cockroaches in his underwear and...on his anus, and then disappearing.
- There are plenty of references to Wizard of Oz throughout (with characters even talking about the movie multiple times), but things get truly crazy when Glenda the Good Witch shows up at the end to teach Sailor to embrace love.
And those are just what come to mind right now. I feel like I could make a list like this after each viewing, and it would be totally different. Wild at Heart is the fucked up movie that keeps on giving.
Why Do I Own This?
I buy any David Lynch movie that even remotely interests me because I know I’ll need to see it multiple times to truly appreciate it. I need to watch this one a few more times in the future.
Laura Dern always impresses me in her Lynch films. She just seems so at home in her roles, which is incredibly impressive when comparing this role to her part in Blue Velvet. She is convincing as both an innocent all-American small town girl and as an over-sexed Dorothy. I’m glad she finally won an Oscar for Marriage Story, but she deserved one at least thirty years ago.
A good triple feature would be this movie with Raising Arizona and Natural Born Killers. Of course, I’d need a lobotomy after watching all three of those in one day, but the experience would be worth it.
That is quite a beating to start a film. It definitely sets the tone for this fucked up story.
"My snakeskin jacket! Thanks, baby! Did I ever tell you that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom?"
I feel like Cage has said this in his everyday life as well.
...and according to IMDb trivia the jacket was actually Cage's and he asked if he could wear it in the movie.
"Sounds like old Dell was more than just a little bit confused, Peanut."
"Lordy, what was that all about?" I think that could be the tagline for almost every Lynch movie.
Bobby Peru is the skeeziest character Willem Dafoe has ever player, and that's fucking saying something.