David Lynch, a name that is for many film enthusiasts the epitome for weird, surreal, and bizarre, surprised many people when he had characterised himself as a Boy Scout from Missoula, Montana. He is also known as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” or “Jimmy Stewart on acid”—a very polite, happy-go-lucky, enthusiastic individual, who unironically uses words and phrases like “Golly!,” “Holy jumping George!,” “Howdy!” etc., and who just happens to have a vivid imagination that has been the basis of nightmares for many of his viewers. Contrary to popular belief, Lynch is not the type of a guy who, for instance, chops off his fingernails in his grandmother’s basement and then puts them in his dinner salad, but is somebody who is actually trying, through foundations, meditation recommendations and charity work, to promote, and achieve without a hint of irony, peace and prosperity. But Lynch’s worlds are full of such contradictions, full of idealists who also happen to be scoundrels below the surface, and Lynch is fascinated with the dark and perverse facet of the human condition, but also on the profound and gentle side of humanity, a soulful aspect of his work that doesn’t get nearly mentioned as the former one. The oblique and mysterious nature of Lynch’s work draws many to become obsessed with finding a universal explanation or an enlightened meaning to his films. But Lynch insists on never revealing what the abstractions in his films “mean,” and he suggests to his viewers that they also try to find out for themselves more on an intuitive than a rational level as to what the disturbing visuals, the labyrinthian plots and the unreliable characters truly convey. Lynch claims that everybody is a detective, but it is also important to note that Lynch’s movies are not merely a puzzle to be solved: they are to be experienced, after which a powerful cinema-going epiphany may come out of his best work. This set of essays will try and derive certain interpretations and explanations of Lynch’s ideas, but they are in no way to be understood as definitive or let alone indicative of what the director himself was thinking. Every reader should be an autonomous detective indeed.
After an 11-year break from filmmaking, Lynch returns for, as he puts it, an 18-hour feature divided into 18 parts, called Twin Peaks, which sounds familiar to pretty much anyone remotely acquainted with the man’s work. Lynch’s cult television show that originally aired in 1990 and 1991 and revolutionized television storytelling returns, against all odds, for a special event series starring Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper. Very little is known about the plot or the characters, apart from the fact that it is indeed happening again, 25 years after the murder of Laura Palmer, the teenage homecoming queen whose death has set the plot of the old Twin Peaks into motion. A 200+ cast list has been released, including newcomers such as Naomi Watts, Laura Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth and Tom Sizemore. This mammoth project for a 71-year-old Lynch will, therefore, serve as a jumping point for Cinephilia & Beyond to go to the past and explore his ten feature films, starting from the debut film Eraserhead in 1977, all the way to Inland Empire in 2006. His short film, web, commercial and television work will not be included, with the clear and notable exception of Twin Peaks itself, which is an essential component for this retrospective.
For a filmmaker regularly obsessed with themes of duality, it is no wonder that Lynch’s films were as a rule received with very polarized reactions on the opposite sides of the critical spectrum. There is no better example for this than the uncomfortable reception of Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990 where Lynch, looking slightly embarrassed and more than a tad awkward, accepts his award for Wild at Heart despite thunderous boos coming from half the audience. As with many other cases of film awards (which is a silly concept to begin with)—history has shown that the most prestigious award Lynch has received in his career was not for necessarily one of his most popular or enduring films. Indeed, Wild at Heart presents Lynch at his most flamboyant, flashy, and frankly childish, which is no surprise since so much of the film is an homage to The Wizard of Oz, not surprisingly one of Lynch’s favorite films from his childhood.
Wild at Heart is something of a mishmash of a twisted romantic love story, a hallucinogenic road movie and a violent, modern fairy tale. The problem with the film is that the connecting tissue between those categories does not really gel–and it all comes down to the characterisation of Sailor and Lula, the two main characters who are not as interesting or compelling as pretty much all other Lynchian protagonists with the obligatory exception of Dune. Even though there is plenty of chemistry to be found between Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, one cannot help the feeling that between the seemingly endless shouting matches and sex scenes, there is a sense of aimlessness here in both character development and keeping momentum, bogged by repetition and a flashback structure that never really does justice to the pacing of the film. Even though the film seemingly bursts with energy—look no further than the bloody opening scene that already sent plenty of cinema goers bolting for the fire exits—the paradox with Wild at Heart is that a lot of it feels repetitive and even tired. There are brief set pieces that have shades of the “In Dreams” sequence of Blue Velvet, but without any of its potency. Characters seemingly important to the story disappear without a trace (such as Grace Zabriskie’s psychotic contract killer or David Patrick Kelly’s sadly underused henchman; the latter being the great character actor famous for his performance as “come out to play” Luther in The Warriors, who had his tremendous acting potential fulfilled in Lynch’s world when he came to play the eccentric Jerry Horne in Twin Peaks)—something that will appear again in Mulholland Drive, although that film has a rich psychological mosaic behind it which is sorely lacking in this Golden Palm winner.
One can always expect of Nicolas Cage to go overboard as much as possible, and the king of extreme acting finds himself quite comfortable in the world of David Lynch. His Elvis impersonation is convincing, his musical moments are both silly and endearing, and his touches to the character, like the personal snakeskin jacket, give Sailor just enough personality to not make him a caricature, even though he is hardly a richly three-dimensional character. And although Laura Dern goes to that shrieking territory that has plagued some of Blue Velvet’s third act even more here (a drinking game where one would take a shot every time she shouts out “SAIIIILOOOOORRR!!!” would prove to be lethal for everybody), she does make an interesting turn from the virtuous Sandy of Blue Velvet to a more outrageous bad girl here. Easily the most entertaining character of Wild at Heart is Bobby Peru (“just like the country”), another one of those irredeemable Lynchian deviants, providing the sluggish movie a well-needed oxygen mask in the third act, both in terms of humour and sheer terror, and Willem Dafoe–who did this role of a rotten-toothed rapist and insane murderer right after his memorable turn as a totally different character, namely Jesus Christ in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ—is both endlessly watchable and repulsive, especially in a psychological rape scene involving Laura Dern which is the epitome of an uncomfortable Lynch scene which provokes the viewer with its odd mixture of horror and inescapable humour. Where Wild at Heart falters is its symbolism and excessive parallels with The Wizard of Oz; especially with the character of Lula’s mother played by Diane Ladd (incidentally Laura Dern’s mother in real life). Ladd is flying on a broom over a line that frequently crosses it to go into cartoonish, Oz-like territory. This also marks the first collaboration with the always reliable Harry Dean Stanton, who brings his familiar combination of vulnerability and frustration to his underused character. After such a spectacular turn in Blue Velvet, Isabella Rossellini is more of a sleepwalker here instead of a pilgrim in Lynch’s dreamworld.
The villains in the story lack nuance of Lynch’s more famous antagonists like Frank Booth, whose teary caressing of blue velvet gave him another facet which wasn’t noticeable in those screaming rape scenes involving Isabella Rossellini. In comparison to the notion of finding an unexpected third dimension in a character; even though Bobby Peru is a delight to watch, and Willem Dafoe visibly has tons of fun in the film, being an actor of weird facial features and eccentric acting tics who couldn’t fit better in a David Lynch feature–there is not much there under the surface, while Lynch’s best works were always dealing with what’s under that glossy façade, as in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks or Mulholland Drive. Even though Sailor is a very flawed and impulsive character, the dark and light of the film—Lynch has described the theme of the film as “finding love in Hell,” love being the Sailor/Lula relationship and Hell being pretty much everyone else around them—has never been clearer, with waters not being as murky, making the characters and the overall themes less complex and intriguing than some of the aforementioned movies. The characters do go through certain changes and doubts, but the character arcs do not have the conviction to make this journey as emotional and convincing as in Lynch’s more disciplined and engaging films.
Oddly enough, some of the biggest strengths of Wild at Heart are in vignettes that serve as tributaries to the main storyline of Sailor and Lula, including a poignant death scene of a girl who has suffered a bad car accident, “broken like a porcelain doll” as Lynch described it, played by Sherilyn Fenn of Twin Peaks fame, and a ludicrous Crispin Glover cameo that defies any logical or illogical explanation, even for a Lynch film. The bizarre humour of Wild at Heart mostly works, especially through Dafoe’s insane character (the death scene of Bobby Peru remains one of the most ridiculous and hilarious goodbyes to a character in general, not just in a David Lynch feature), but the emotional punch, always carefully orchestrated in Lynch’s work, simply isn’t there. Even Angelo Badalamenti’s score, especially since it was made during a creative tsunami between his famous work in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, feels atypically uninspired (although the use of the instrumental version of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game in a night car scene gives the movie a hint of subtle romanticism that is sorely missed and replaced by excessive sex and laughable dancing to death metal, among other things). All these aspects contribute to the fact that the film is sadly lacking that penetrating, all-encompassing atmosphere and frightening mood that is present in other Lynch’s films. The optimistic ending does seem at least well-deserved, especially after all the bloody mayhem that occurred during the two hours before, but there is barely a sense that Sailor and Lula really had a convincing emotional character arc that brought them to that place. Lynch adapted the script from a book by Barry Gifford, a collaborator who later wrote the script for Lost Highway with Lynch, and although this is in comparison with Dune clearly, one hundred per cent, a Lynch film, it feels like a borrowed creation instead of an authentic one.
Nevertheless, Wild at Heart remains an oddity in Lynch’s career, since it finds itself between two of his biggest successes, with that one series named Twin Peaks becoming a commercial juggernaut and turning Lynch into a household name. 1990 was a huge year for Lynch, and Twin Peaks was a major part of that, overshadowing even that little Golden Palm he has received for one of his frankly more underwhelming movies. An information that has to be debunked here is the fact that Lynch left Twin Peaks to film Wild at Heart during the much-lauded first season, and not during the uneven second (“It got very stupid and goofy in the second season; it got ridiculous. I stopped watching that show because it got so bad.”). Lynch had shot the pilot of Twin Peaks before Wild at Heart, but the rest of Twin Peaks episodes directed by him came afterwards. The exuberance and energy of this film had transferred in his only regular first-season episode of Twin Peaks he directed (Episode 2), where he was also faced with more compelling characters and better-written material. It is the 2nd season of Twin Peaks where Lynch, free from the conspicuous, adolescent inclinations of Wild at Heart, went into a more introspective, character-based and emotional work. Roger Ebert once said of the great director Werner Herzog that “even his failures are fantastic”—there is certainly something creative and fascinating to be found even in Lynch’s lesser works, and Wild at Heart feels like a part of Lynch’s filmography that offers occasional fresh crumbs in what remains a loaf of stale bread.
Written by Lovorko Marić
Here’s a rare revised first draft of David Lynch’s screenplay for Wild at Heart, adapted from Barry Gifford’s novel of the same name [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The Blu-ray [Collector’s Edition] of the film is available at Shout! Factory. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Here are some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. Photographed by Kimberly Wright © PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Propaganda Films, The Samuel Goldwyn Company. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations:
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in[newsletter]