There’s a defining moment in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart where Lula (Laura Dern), a liberated southern belle, takes the wheel of a 1965 Ford Thunderbird convertible while Sailor (Nicolas Cage), her parole-skipping boyfriend, nods off in the back seat. On some dusty stretch of highway outside San Antonio, Texas, she starts flipping through the AM dial for something to listen to, but every station is surreal or gruesome or both: “… severed …”, “… recent divorce, shot and killed her three children …”, “…shot right between …”, “… a heinous …”, “… had sex with the corpse …” and one final grisly item about the crocodiles brought in to devour the floating corpses of 500 turtles released into the Ganges to help reduce human pollution.
Lula pulls the car over in disgust. “Sailor Ripley, you get me some music on that radio this instant!” she screams, and he obliges, scanning past more talk-radio mayhem before landing, improbably, on a track by the Minneapolis speed metal band Powermad. As the two thrash along in the embankment – Sailor, with his karate-kick dancing style, seems like a terror in nightclubs – Lynch’s camera cranes upwards to a magic-hour sunset across the field. And then suddenly, the adrenalized thump of Powermad’s Slaughterhouse fades out and the lush strings of Richard Strauss overwhelm the soundtrack. Romance pokes through the violence and discord like a bloom through cracks in the pavement. Love conquers all.
The sequence is Wild at Heart in microcosm, with the AM stations representing treacherous pitstops on the lost highways between a deep south correctional facility and sunny California, where Sailor and Lula hope to carve out some place for themselves. The appeal of road movies is that they allow for a certain amount of narrative spontaneity, with every exit teasing the possibility of a new and unexpected subplot. That uneasiness is the lifeblood of Wild at Heart, which sets a love of the purest and most passionate kind against a sun-scorched landscape of ceaseless hostility. The forces of good and evil that Lynch had limited to a small town four years earlier with Blue Velvet are blown out into the larger expanse of the American road.
Thirty years ago, Wild at Heart arrived in theaters after winning the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was greeted, according to the critic Dave Kehr, with “the most violent chorus of boos and hisses to be heard in a decade”. Such a reception at Cannes can often be a badge of honor – L’Avventura and Taxi Driver also got an earful – and Lynch would get booed again when he premiered Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me at the festival two years later. But Wild at Heart opening to polarized reviews and middling box office, and its reputation over the years hasn’t improved as much as Fire Walk with Me or Lost Highway, which both seemed ahead of their audience at the time. While other Lynch films have been treated to Criterion editions and repertory play, it was hard to find on DVD in the US for years and it’s still not available to stream anywhere. This was not the expected fate for a Palme-winner from one of the greatest film-makers.
And yet, it’s not impossible to understand why it’s slipped through the cracks a little. Wild at Heart is a film of extreme violence and ugliness, and it’s far more conceptually loaded than it needs to be, with a complicated thicket of murderous lowlifes and Wizard of Oz references that are sometimes clumsily grafted on to the action and the dialogue. Coming after a tightly constructed noir like Blue Velvet, the film feels deliberately unruly, loaded with discursive flashbacks and soap opera twists, and moments of glib provocation, as if Lynch were aiming to repulse people as a lark. John Waters once said, “If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.” Perhaps that’s what those Cannes boos felt like for Lynch.
But the chaos that surrounds Sailor and Lula – “Well, we’re really out in the middle of it now, ain’t we?” she declares – has the effect of heightening their relationship, much like the pop of three-strip Technicolor when Dorothy emerges into Munchkinland. For all the scenes of them grinding away in seedy motel rooms, and for all the past traumas and injustices they can never escape, Lynch sees Sailor and Lula as innocents, so pure in their love that they would make the robin tweet in Blue Velvet. When Sailor serenades Lula with Elvis tunes, it’s easy to get hung up on Nicolas Cage’s kitschy impersonation of The King or the piped-in screams of young women from an old live recording. But Lynch is utterly sincere about Sailor and Lula, and optimistic that they can overcome the evil forces that are aligned against them.
The key to Wild at Heart is Laura Dern’s performance as Lula, who craves freedom from a pathological mother (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real mom) and from a childhood shaped by sexual assault and the death of her father under dubious circumstances. She clings to the most flawed imaginable vessel in Sailor, who’d be the type to stumble into prison stints under the best of circumstances, but who also happens to have witnessed the fire that killed her father. As she and Sailor dodge the bloodhounds and assassins her mother sends after them – Harry Dean Stanton, JE Freeman, Grace Zabriskie, Isabella Rossellini and David Patrick Kelly are only a partial list of their pursuers – Lula insists on finding some place where they can be happy together. Maybe it’s a dancefloor, maybe it’s cigarettes on a motel bed, maybe it’s a sunset on the side of the road – she will eke out pleasure in the moment, even if they have no future together.
Lynch puts Dern through the emotional wringer here, like a devastating encounter with a car crash victim (Sherilyn Fenn) who spends her last moments in shocked delirium or an extended stay in the Texas hellpit of Big Tuna, where the oily Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) identifies and exploits her deepest vulnerabilities. When Lula tells Sailor, “You mark me the deepest,” Lynch makes sure the audience knows all the marks she’s accumulated. He engineers a happy ending for her because she deserves it. There’s a place for her and Sailor off the doom and static of the radio dial, somewhere over the rainbow.