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.