WildAtHeartThis remains one of David Lynch’s most controversial films. A dark and violent romance, it’s quite uneven but still fairly impacting, as even mid-level Lynch is better than most other filmmaker’s so-called successes.

WILD AT HEART, released in August of 1990, was Lynch’s long-in-coming follow-up to BLUE VELVET. WILD AT HEART won the grand prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, but stateside critics and audiences were upset largely by the fact that it was so different in look, style and content than BLUE VELVET (even though it dealt with many of the same themes). David Lynch, being the uncompromising artist he was/is, never had any interest in repeating himself, which got him in a fair amount of trouble, seeing as how his previous film was such a massive cult success.

Then there was the issue of WILD AT HEART’S violence quota. In 1990 it was about as extreme as mainstream American cinema got; I was a movie theater employee back then, and can attest that it inspired more disgusted walk-outs than just about any other movie of the time. Now, however, the shock factor has worn off—especially since the film directly influenced much of the independent cinema of the nineties—making it far easier to appreciate its many qualities.

Sailor and Lula are a young couple in love. Unfortunately their seemingly blissful romance is thwarted when Sailor is attacked by a black man one day and ends up bashing the guy’s head in. The man was hired by Lula’s witchy mother Henrietta, who’d just come on to Sailor in a public restroom. Her aim was to bring Sailor down because he witnessed the death of her husband in a fire that Henrietta and her slimy boyfriend Marcellus Santos caused.

When Sailor is released from prison a few years later he takes off on a wild cross-country jaunt with Lula, in defiance of her mother’s wishes. The latter responds by sending Johnny Farragut, an easygoing private detective, after them. But she also dispatches Santos. He promptly delivers Johnny into the hands of some psychotic friends in New Orleans, who enlist him in a “buffalo hunt” in which Johnny assumes the role of the buffalo.

As for Sailor and Lula, their money quickly runs out and they end up in a Texas fleapit called Big Tuna. There Sailor falls under the influence of Bobby Peru, a miscreant who enlists Sailor in a bank heist he promises will make them both rich. What Bobby fails to disclose is that he’s in the employ of Santos, and has vowed to see to it that Sailor doesn’t survive the robbery!

Lula in the meantime has discovered she’s pregnant, and isn’t so sure she wants to deliver a baby into a world that’s “wild at heart and weird on top.”

Most of David Lynch’s previous films—ERASERHEAD, THE ELEPHANT MAN, BLUE VELVET, the TWIN PEAKS pilot episode—had a lean, streamlined quality to them. WILD AT HEART marked the beginning of Lynch’s disjointed and overlong phase (see TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME and LOST HIGHWAY). The 1989 Barry Gifford novel the film is based on was a pared-down exercise in minimalism marked by colorful conversations and very little action. Lynch added his own brand of colorful weirdness, and also quite a few supporting players. Thus, a simple story about lovers on the run is rendered extremely complicated and difficult to follow.

Yet there are many impressive touches. WILD AT HEART has a style and attitude that today might be called Tarantino-esque, with its darkly comedic noirish atmosphere, startlingly graphic violence and frequent hommages to past movies (a red pipe from MON ONCLE, a dog gobbling a severed hand from YOJIMBO). Tarantino’s scripts for TRUE ROMANCE and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, for that matter, both owe more than a little something to WILD AT HEART.

Also on display in WILD AT HEART is Lynch’s gift for eliciting the absolute best from his performers. Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern have never been better as Sailor and Lula, who remain one of the great white trash couples in screen history. The supporting cast is peppered with Lynch regulars like Grace Zabriskie, Jack Nance, Isabella Rossellini, Harry Dean Stanton and Crispin Glover, all of whom make quite an impression. The most impressive performance, however, is delivered by Laura Dern’s real-life mom Diane Ladd, not known for Lynch movies but whose sustained comedic intensity makes her quite possibly the ideal David Lynch performer.

Vital Statistics

The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Director: David Lynch
Producers: Monty Montgomery, Steve Golin, Sigurjon Sighvatsson
Screenplay: David Lynch
(Based on a novel by Barry Gifford)
Cinematography: Frederick Elmes
Editing: Duwayne Dunham
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Willem Dafoe, Harry Dean Stanton, J.E. Freeman, Crispin Glover, Calvin Lockhart, Isabella Rossellini, Grace Zabriskie, Sherilyn Fenn, Marvin Kaplan, W, Morgan Sheppard, David Patrick Kelly, Freddie Jones, Jack Nance, Sheryl Lee