Released in August 1990, Wild at Heart, directed by David Lynch, is the only film I’ve paid to watch twice. I went to the theater to see it the week it came out, the summer after my freshman year of college, with my then boyfriend. I was so amazed by it that I went back and watched it again the next day by myself. Since then, the film has remained among my top 10 favorites. I’ve watched it dozens of times on DVD.
Based on a novel by the same name by American writer Barry Gifford, Wild at Heart won the Palm d’Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, the event’s most coveted and prestigious prize. It features an all-star cast including Laura Dern, Nicolas Cage, Harry Dean Stanton, Diane Ladd, Crispin Glover, Isabella Rossellini, and Willem Dafoe.
Part coming-of-age story, part road movie, part crime drama, and part morality tale, Wild at Heart glamorizes and celebrates the underbelly of the American South in fluorescent fashion. It rivals a Bosch painting in its surreal and often grotesque depictions of everyday life, especially when it comes to the meaner things.
The film is chock full of hot, gratuitous sex and features several violent, blood-soaked scenes, some of which are steeped in a sort of grim humor. It’s populated by the larger-than-life oddball characters Lynch is known for: A Voodoo priestess who wears a leg brace and walks with a cane; scores of little people; pyromaniacs; a prostitute harboring an impressive hoard of assault weapons; grossly obese porn stars; and a mysterious organized crime boss named Mr. Reindeer who never seems to get off the toilet.
Dafoe plays Bobby Peru, an unhinged ex-Marine and Vietnam vet who is far and away one of the most disturbing characters ever captured on film. And although he’s only in one scene, Glover’s character, Dale, a mentally challenged young man who believes he’s being controlled by aliens, provides one of the movie’s more memorable highlights.
The story begins in Cape Fear, North Carolina, when one of its lead characters, Sailor Ripley, played by Cage, kills a hit man hired by his girlfriend’s mother, Marietta (played by Ladd), in self-defense. After being incarcerated for nearly two years, Sailor is picked up at the prison gate by girlfriend, Lula, played by Dern. Within 24 hours, the pair embarks on a cross-country joy ride headed for “sunny California” in an effort to escape Marietta’s meddling.
At first, it seems that Sailor and Lula will make it as they joyfully race along deserted highways and sunbaked backroads, making a steamy pitstop in bawdy New Orleans. But as they travel through Texas, things take a turn for the worse. They begin to run low on cash, come across a grisly car wreck, and eventually get stuck in down-and-out Big Tuna, where Sailor gets tangled up in a botched bank heist. The spirits of Elvis and The Wizard of Oz loom over all of it like omnipresent but indifferent gods. Occasionally, one of them rears its head unexpectedly, such as in one implausible but fantastic scene where Sailor sings Love Me to Lula on the dance floor of a crowded rock club.
After not having seen Wild at Heart for more than 10 years, I recently re-watched it. More than 30 years after the first time I’d seen it, I wondered whether the elements of the film that had appealed to me as a 19-year-old would still hold true.
I’m happy to say that the film is every bit as wild and bizarre as I remembered it.