Wild at Heart (1990): Lynch Cannes Fest Award Winning

Goldwyn Company (Polygram/Propaganda Films)

Inspired by Barry Gifford’s novel, Lynch followed “Blue Velvet,” an artistic and commercial success, with “Wild at Heart,” a flamboyant romantic fable that’s a paean to “The Wizard of Oz,” densely rich with allusions to other movies (including Kurosawa) and pop culture works.

The central couple, Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) and Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage), take their own Yellow Brick Road in search of the Wizard. Ripley has just served 22 months and 18 days in prison for manslaughter in self-defense.

Driving from Cape Fear, North Carolina to the end of the line in Big Tuna, Texas, they are followed by Marietta (Diane Ladd), Lula’s monstrous mother. Fearing Sailor’s knowledge of her plot to murder her husband, Marietta mobilizes “black angel” Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) and Perdita Durango (Isabella Rossellini) to track him down.

In outline, Wild at Heart recalls Badlands, though it lacks Terrence Malick’s detached irony. Lynch took a slim work and pumped it up into a pop epic. The dopey Lula and Sailor realize their destiny through intense lovemaking, smoking Kools and Camels, eating burgers and drinking beer. Sailor likes to kick-box in crowded discos to loud guitar music, pick fights (he smashes a man’s skull with his bare hands), then take the mike and croon Elvis songs to his girl.

Once they land in Big Tuna and Lula gets pregnant, the film changes gears. In the motel, Lula’s in bed, listening to classic music on the radio, while Sailor goes on a bank robbery that will send him back to jail. In the film’s scariest scene, shown in menacing close-up, Bobby Peru invades Lula’s room and insists that she says, “Please, fuck me.”

Flashbacks reveal Lula’s incestuous Uncle Pooch and Cousin Dell, a man so obsessed with Christmas that he wears a soiled Kris Kringle suit and counts the days all year round. Mother and daughter temporarily unite, though at the end (5 years, 2 months and 21 days later), Lula defies her mother and goes with their son to greet Sailor.

The point of reference is Wizard of Oz: Marietta is the Wicked Witch, whereas the Good Witch Glinda floats down on a large soap bubble and tells Sailor, “Lula loves you, don’t turn away from love.” Sailor goes back and sings Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” as the end credits roll down.

Unlike Blue Velvet, here Lynch’s bizarre inventions become an ends in themselves. Not much is made of a fleeting image of a severed head, or a solemn look at a toilet bowl. The shocks have little resonance and the weirdness is trivial: Cousin Dell walks around with cockroaches in his underpants. Once again, fire is the dominant metaphor: In the opening credits, a kitchen match is struck and the screen erupts into intense flames with the roar of a blast furnace.

The film’ hyperkinetic wildness is mostly on the surface; the images are elaborately conceived but meaningless. The script, basically a series of vignettes, needed more dramatic tension. Lynch infuses the story with menace, but he can’t escape the lurid material.

In this picture, Lynch stylizes Sailor and Lula’s innocence, but their dreams are so infantile that viewers respond with condescension. All the characters, not just the villains, are schematically constructed as cartoons.

Oscar Alert:

Oscar Nominations: 1

Supporting Actress: Diane Ladd

Oscar Context

The winner was Whoopi Goldberg for the supernatural romance, “Ghost.”

Cast:

Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern)
Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage)
Marietta Pace (Diane Ladd)
Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe)
Perdita Durango (Isabella Rossellini)
Johnny Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton)
Dell (Crispin Glover)
Juana (Grace Zabriskie)
Marcello Santos (J.E. Freeman)
Mr. Reindeer (W. Morgan Sheppard)

Credits

Running time: 126 Minutes
MPAA: R