DAVID LYNCH is a director of meticulous consideration and invention. The kind of director who will ‘build’ dust bunnies and install them himself beneath a radiator on-set even though the camera never looks below knee-level. He may not always (ever?) explain himself to the audience, but at his best we get the sense that each bizarre idiosyncrasy or hokey tangent has some essential purpose. Superfluity itself becomes an essential component of his milieu, as in ‘Twin Peaks’, ‘Blue Velvet’, or ‘Mulholland Drive’.
But this approach doesn’t always work. Sometimes an entire film will become superfluous, recognizably kin to Lynch’s other films but nothing more than a burst of sound and fury. ‘Wild at Heart’ is one such. (‘Lost Highway’ another.) Based on a novel by Barry Gifford, the film follows an Elvis-loving outlaw, Sailor Ripley (Nicholas Cage), and his young girlfriend Lula Fortune (a young and willowy Laura Dern) on a parole-breaking trek through the South. Along the way they are dogged by increasingly outré hitmen (including a repulsively perfect Willem Dafoe) but still find time for plenty of high-kick dancing and motel room sex. The fundamental plot is rather salacious and could have been developed as a mystery or thriller, but Lynch focuses much more on the characters and their quirks. The trouble is that none of them resonates especially well, and thus we end up with neither compelling intrigue nor drama.
And yet there is an awful appeal to the picture, extruded and perversely insistent. Nicholas Cage has a habit of appearing in such films and this is one of his ‘peak’ performances. It’s easy to ridicule his impossible earnestness, like an agitated child overcome with conviction, but few actors could commit to this role as completely. Sailor may be guilty of manslaughter, but he also loves ‘dancing’ to thrash metal, idolizing Elvis, and wearing a snakeskin jacket that “represents a symbol of [his] individuality and [his] belief in personal freedom.” So he and Lula drive on, pushing down the dull and maculate dirt showing through their gilt fantasy (and the audience’s tolerance for the gauche) until the nightmares catch up. Cage’s character may be a farce, but so, too, is the film—like a Cormac McCarthy novel retold by Elmore Leonard and played by circus characters. And Cage is as hard-charging a ringleader as Lynch was likely to find. The great German director (and future Lynch collaborator) Werner Herzog, describes Cage as “always formidable.” And this is true. He also says there is no such thing as “the OK Nic Cage”, which is maybe less true. The point remains that in ‘Wild At Heart’s fairy tale denouement—Cage standing atop the hood of a gridlocked car, singing ‘Love Me Tender’ with a prosthetic broken nose—he is unquestionably Sailor Ripley. And vice versa.
But for all this awkward compulsion, ‘Wild at Heart’ is not a good picture. Its bizarreness and gratuity lack the balancing charisma and beauty found in ‘Blue Velvet’, for example. Both films feature a deranged, lipstick-smearing antagonist—Crazy Frank in ‘Blue Velvet’, Lula’s mother, Marietta Fortune, here in ‘Wild at Heart’—but only the former instills anything like dread. The latter is just a sideshow, a paranoid caricature of femininity like Nadine in ‘Twin Peaks’.
Lynch seems to be most comfortable while working from original material, whereas ‘Wild At Heart’ and the frightfully imbalanced (albeit fascinating) ‘Dune’ are both novel adaptations. As his own master, Lynch can make us feel the beating of a dark and deep pulse without having to tap and exhaust it. He is less adept at finding the veins in others, however enthusiastically he may attempt it, because his own sources are so far removed from the norm. And thus ‘Wild at Heart’ feels more like an outsized romance from an art school portfolio, stabbing with wild ambition and never striking the heart.