By Kyle Turner
When one hears the word “Lynchian”, it isn’t as if “conventional” is the first thing that comes to mind. Thus it is only fitting that if one choses to describe the film Wild at Heart (1990) as a “Lynchian road movie”, it would be the least conventional road movie one could imagine. And, as expected, the film delivers on the promise, working as a slick rollicking journey into the American nightmare, not unlike Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Only, here, Lynch uses sex as our only savior.
Based on the novel of the same name by Barry Gilford, Lynch’s semi-pulpy story presents two star crossed leads, one named Sailor (Nicholas Cage) and the other Lula (Laura Dern) on the run from the latter’s mother. Sailor has a temper and is, for the lack of a better phrase, a criminal with a heart of gold. But their love is ultimately what propels the film.
Lynch seems to have had a fascination with the connotations of sex, masculinity, and its effects on the mind for quite some time; from the anxiety of fatherhood in Eraserhead to the trauma of incestuous sexual assault in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. After Wild at Heart, he would go on to explore sexuality “in his way” (aka, slightly more exploitative) in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive., but in Wild at Heart he seems to be clearest in articulating his ideas about sex. For these characters, sex shapes their entire landscape– not limited to their road trip, but also their mind. Laura Dern’s Lula is passionately in love with Sailor, but the impression is given that sex influences her perception of truth, perhaps to an extent where she is able to deflect that truth to create a new reality. In a post-coital sequence, she describes the relationship she had with her mother, but the film cuts away to reveal something different. Is Lula blocking out this truth or allowing herself to rewrite the past through her sexuality?
Wild at Heart is most upfront about its sex, which is scintillating, sexy, and, more to the point, bursting with passion. Lynch shoots his sex scenes with lurid colors– like a hopped up Christopher Doyle working with Wong-Kar Wai, mixed with the sensuality of Heartbeats. The obtuse imagery (a bit of a trademark of Lynch) is often inflammatory. (See what I did there?)
So, Lynch builds the dynamic between Cage and Dern upon fire, allowing their passion to drive the narrative like a wildfire, with sexuality influencing the scope of the film and the actions of its characters. The eroticism is so palpable, the screen nearly melts with all the intensity that Lynch’s camera exudes.
Interestingly, Lynch, who also seems to enjoy exploring masculinity, gives Cage a chance to shine as Sailor, speaking with an Elvis-like twang and donning a snake skin jacket, which Sailor is happy to tell you represents his individuality and his belief in personal freedom. While Lynch’s examinations of masculinity have not been the same as, say, Martin Scorsese’s, he has been able to wheedle out different ideas about machismo and anxiety in his male characters, such as in Eraserhead and Lost Highway. Cage, with a libido and temper that seem to nearly be on fire, balances the campiness of the character to reveal slight vulnerabilities. Almost as if his masculinity is dependent on his sexual relations with Lula, he amps up aspects of the performance when in his “seduction mode”. The drawl becomes more exaggerated, his body assumes a flexibility suited for his poses that are nearly iconic.
And deeply rooted in these masculine anxieties is his wish to be iconoclastic. He’s a robber and a killer, he talks like Elvis, and bent on expressing his individuality and personal freedom through a jacket, he’s kind of like Clyde Barrow. This comparison is apt, given the images of violence that are also tied to sex in the film. Kind of paying homage and riffing on Arthur Penn’s sexual violence in Bonnie and Clyde, self-mythologizing is critical to understanding the tale of Bonnie and Clyde, and just as critical to understanding Sailor and Lula.
Playing with allusions to The Wizard of Oz, Lynch’s road movie is about desire more than anything else. The pursuit of and the careful maintenance of desire.
Wild at Heart is available now on a new Blu-ray release from Twilight Time.
The masculine/feminiene aspect of Wild at Heart is interesting because it’s one of Lynch’s last films with a male protagonist but also the first to take us inside the head of a female character. Lula’s flashbacks and those disturbing close-ups of her staring into the mirror are virtually without precedent in the director’s filmography but very indicative of the forthcoming Fire Walk With Me, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire. The treatment of abuse is also compelling – as in Blue Velvet, there is the suggestion that the female character “likes” her abuse (something many criticized Lynch for in BV, to which he responded that Dorothy wasn’t supposed to represent all women). However, again leading the way toward Fire Walk With Me, Lynch complicates this portrayal in several ways: when Bobby Peru leaves the room after groping and taunting her, we stay with her as she clicks her heels (no Jeffrey-type character mediating our view this time), and later we cut back for those aforementioned close-up cutaways which indicate she has experienced a sort of traumatic reawakening. Speaking of which, the flashback to her “uncle”‘s molestation is also telling. Both Sailor and Lula refer to the incident casually as if it’s no big deal, but when we see the actual scene in flashback it’s much more disturbing. The uncle is a bit of cartoonish caricature and Lula (still played by Dern) is almost comically older than the character is supposed to be – but mixed with the dark comedy is a sense of real suffering on her part. I think it’s Diane Stevenson, in her piece on family violence and abuse in Lynch’s cinema, who notes Wild at Heart’s transitional role on this score.
Though it’s not really one of my favorite Lynchs, increasingly I see Wild at Heart as very crucial in his oeuvre. It’s a very transitional film not just in terms of themes but style – the first in which he really throws off any aesthetic restraint and cultivates a looser, more impressionistic air. The connections you note with Bonnie & Clyde and other outlaw movies is interesting, inasmuch as Sailor is not much of a criminal. His infractions are usually minor or portrayed as justified (he’s a “manslaughterer” rather than a murderer), and his enemies in the film are not cops but ruthless criminals. This separates him and Lula not only from previous onscreen outlaws but also upcoming ones like Mickey & Mallory in Natural Born Killers. They are very much the “good guys” which is in keeping with Lynch’s fondness (especially in his early work) for pure-at-heart protagonists.