Following the surprise success of Blue Velvet, David Lynch for a moment inhabited the zeitgeist. It wasn't simply that his next movie Wild at Heart felt more glamorous. On television Twin Peaks was to become a soaring success and dominate the culture. The Pixies were covering The Radiator Song from Eraserhead and suddenly Lynch became cool. I went with my girlfriend to see Wild at Heart in a small cinema in Ambleside. Driving back through the Lake District in a small FIAT Panda, through the dark night, felt magical. Like the world itself was turning Lynchian. Later that month we bought the soundtrack on cassette and listened to it driving home from Blackpool. I'm not sure if we thought of ourselves as Sailor and Lula, but it was the sort of film that made you aspire to be wilder than you were and comforted you for the weirdness around you.
Watching it now, the film still holds up. It feels more like a continuation of Blue Velvet than it did at the time. Essentially both films have classic noir plots. In Wild at Heart, Sailor (Nic Cage) is jailed when he kills a man in self-defence - we later find out that the attack came at the behest of Lula's mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd). Lula (Laura Dern) stays true to Sailor and on his release the two go on the run, chased by the private detective (Harry Dean Stanton) and an array of gangsters who Marietta sics on the fleeing couple. The simplicity of the plot is a straight as the road they run on. The humor is as black as the tarmacadam. Cage and Dern both jump into their characters with a genuinely sexy enthusiasm and verve, whether rocking out in a club or by the side of the road or fucking in the motel rooms along the way. And yet much more is going on.
To begin with the film has The Wizard of Oz running through it like the underside of a palimpsest. The red slippers, the wicked witch and the final arrival of the good witch make the movie speak a language of lost films. There's nostalgia here but the brutality of the 'real world' is also apparent. Lula's life is one of sexual molestation on the one hand and a dominant matriarch on the other. Meanwhile, Sailor is a bystander to crimes he doesn't understand, and despite his belief in personal freedom 'as symbolized by his snakeskin jacket', finds himself - typical to the noir archetype - entrapped in a situation which means he can't win.
He isn't the only one. Johnny Farragut, played beautifully by Harry Dean Stanton, is Marietta's lover as well as her private eye. His devotion to her blinds him to her failings and crimes, but is no less devotion for all that. His murder is one of the most upsetting of the film, coming as a betrayal of the love that mirrors that between Sailor and Lula. Lynch creates his manichean vision of the world, but the lines are more blurred, people get caught in-between. There are the brutal pimps and assassins. The man who watches a woman dance naked while sitting on the toilet perfectly encapsulates a world in which sex and defecation have comparable value. And on the other side there are those who somehow, despite the rape and brutality and injustice they are subject to, manage to retain some form of basic innocence. Wild at Heart is in the struggle to achieve that.
Just as Blue Velvet gave Dennis Hopper an opportunity to shine as one of the most despicable villains, so Willem Dafoe creates a Rembrandt in sleaze with Bobby Peru, the dentally challenged armed robber with a slick line in patter. As with Frank, Peru is filled with the vitality and charisma and wit. They are characters who thoroughly enjoy being bad people and it should disturb us how much the screen lights up when they enter the scene. On the way, Lynch is more expansive than he was with the tight plotting of Blue Velvet. There are sojourns and diversions, digressions and loose anecdotes. Sailor and Lula are fascinated by each other and in the quiet moments we get a feeling for the depth of their characters and experiences that overcomes the meta quality of the film and their performances. Laura Dern in particular relishes playing against her girl next door profile gained from her last Lynch appearance. The couple also have a detour which involves Sherilyn Fenn, the victim of a car accident. It is a moment of surrealness which emphasises the real.
When it premiered at Cannes, Lynch's film took home the Palme d'Or. On its wider release, however, reviews were mixed, with many feeling it was a disappointment. The less restrained Lynch led many to believe he had become indulgent and prone to self-parody. There is something about the expectation of weirdness that makes the weird into an obvious performance. Now actors seemed to know they were in David Lynch films and played their parts appropriately (which is incidentally why Stanton is so good: he's in his own film). With the passing of the years and watching the film in the context of Blue Velvet and Lynch's filmography generally, the violence seems less important and the differences less pronounced. Undoubtedly the film mirrors its protagonists' dilemma. They don't know where they're going or what they're going to do when they get there. They get mixed up in plots along the way which almost capsize them entirely. And yet through a sheer act of will some sense of meaning is salvaged and a happy ending triumphs, defying you to call it ironic.