Wild at Heart (1990)
Directed by David Lynch

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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Sailor (Nicolas Cage) is deeply in love with Lula (Laura Dern), although her vicious mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd), detests him. After he is released from prison, where he had been incarcerated for killing a man Marietta had sent to attack him, Sailor meets Lula and flees with her in an old convertible across America's South. Pursed by hitmen hired by Marietta, the pair eventually arrive in the isolated town of Big Tuna in the Texas desert.

David Lynch's much undervalued Wild at Heart is a genuinely captivating and deeply affecting tale of passionate love.

Both the protagonists are vacuous, charmingly awkward, nearly caricatured individuals, as are the wildly eccentric persons they encounter and the outrageous villains from whom they flee. Sailor, with his pet slogans, his snake skin jacket, and his predilection for self-destructive behavior, which includes giving in to bouts of bloody savagery, is a joy to watch, as is his earthy, sensual, love mad girlfriend, Lula. Marietta, happily, is just as well realized as these two are. She is manipulative, traitorous, and capable of terrifying cruelty. There is, in fact, hardly a person who appears in the film who will not intrigue the viewer.

What is more, the dialogue these persons speak is wonderfully overwrought, deliciously clever, and consistently weird. At different times, Sailor tells a cliché filled tale about his first sexual experience with a raven haired prostitute; a crazed hitwoman makes obscure but threatening remarks about going buffalo hunting; Sailor and Lula discuss a future in which people will be driving Buicks to the moon, and Lula reveals how her cousin Dell (Crispin Glover) believed that he was being followed by aliens wearing black rubber gloves who were spoiling the spirit of Christmas and controlling the weather.

Not only has Lynch created a slew of fascinating characters and placed countless delightful lines in their mouths, he has also set them in a truly enthralling narrative. Over the course of the movie, the director reveals how the protagonists race across a dreamlike landscape inhabited by innumerable odd individuals and alive with as many dangers, all the while hoping for some fairy tale ending which appears to be less and less possible as their journey continues. At one time or another, between frequent and passionate sexual encounters, the pair visit a resort, where Sailor assaults a man who dared dance with his beloved, discover a young woman wandering in the desert after having been fatally maimed in a car accident, become trapped in a trailer park inhabited by an assortment of disreputable and outlandish lunatics, and face what appears to be complete defeat as a result of Sailor's attempt to rob a feed store.

As banal as all these events are, they have been given a certain magical quality, which somehow mingles an epic feel with a real quirkiness. This peculiar sense of enchantment is made especially apparent by means of numerous allusions to Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz. At several points, for instance, the director shows images of a crystal ball under a taloned hand, which connect Marietta with the Wicked Witch of the West. Elsewhere, he reveals an hallucinatory witch flying on her broomstick beside Lula as that woman sits in a car next to her boyfriend, and, near the movie's end, he depicts Sailor imagining that the Good Witch Glenda is appearing to him and exhorting him to fight for his dreams and not to turn away from love.

Such fairy tale elements, which suffuse the movie with a bewitching timelessness, are effectively emphasized by the overwrought performances of the actors. Diane Ladd transforms her character into a monstrous pantomime villain. Laura Dern burns with a trashy sexiness, and Nicolas Cage makes Sailor into a traditional hero, one unbound by the values of others and willing to act savagely towards those who oppose him. Even the film's supporting players are enthralling. Harry Dean Stanton is actually likeable as Marietta's smitten lover, Johnnie Farragut. W. Morgan Sheppard is simply strange as the mysterious Mr. Reindeer, who commands legions of assassins from his lavish mansion, where he lives surrounded by hosts of half naked women, and Willem Dafoe is utterly repulsive as the grotesque, barely human Bobby Peru, who has, perhaps, the ugliest teeth to be found in any movie. All are absolutely captivating.

While it falls short of greatness, Wild at Heart is a mesmerizing, touching, and memorable film.

Review by Keith Allen

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