Review: Wild at Heart (1990)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #745

Also known as Sailor & Lula
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: May 25, 1990 (Cannes)
Sub-Genre: Road Movie/Love Story
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $9,500,000
Box Office: $14,500,000 (USA)
Running Time: 124 minutes
Director: David Lynch
Producers: Steve Golin, Monty Montgomery, Sigurjón Sighvatsson
Screenplay: David Lynch
Based on Wild at Heart by Barry Gifford
Special Effects: Don Power
Cinematography: Frederick Elmes
Score: Angelo Badalamenti
Editing: Duwayne Dunham
Studios: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Propaganda Films
Distributor: The Samuel Goldwyn Company
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe, Diane Ladd, Isabella Rossellini, Harry Dean Stanton, J. E. Freeman, W. Morgan Sheppard, Crispin Glover, Grace Zabriskie, Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, David Patrick Kelly, Pruitt Taylor Vince

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Perdita “Rubber City”

[2] Angelo Badalamenti “Cool Cat Walk”

[3] Powermad “Slaughter House”

[4] Chris Isaak “Wicked Game”

[5] KoKo Taylor “Up In Flames”

[6] Nicolas Cage “Love Me”

What lengths would you go to in the name of love? Would you make yourself look pretty? Would you paint your toenails? Would you make love without inhibition? Would you face the demons of your past? Would you acquaint the demons of your future? Would you deem your honor worthy of fighting for? Would you excuse violence? Would it secretly excite you? Would time apart only make your love stronger? Would you forsake all others? Would you make your sweetheart the very centre of your universe? Would you surrender your heart? Would you offer up yours? Would you defy your mother’s wishes? Would you run away and start all over again? Would you continue to search for that elusive rainbow? Would you place your entire life in the safekeeping of another? Would you trust them to do the same?

Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) would do all these things without a second’s hesitation. You see, Lula is very much in love. We’re not talking the easy come and go kind of love, the kind that is spoken of in the heat of the moment and rued the very second you climax, the changeable kind bound by conditions. This is the real deal, the kind that comes along but once in a lifetime, the fairy tale variety. Like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Lula hasn’t given up searching for her rainbow and the yellow brick road beckons at this very moment. But love is a two-way deal and her travel companion just so happens to be scarecrow, tin man, and cowardly lion all rolled into one.

Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) has two loves in life. One is his precious snakeskin jacket, which he’s quick to point out “is a symbol of my individuality and belief in personal freedom”. The other is Lula and no material possession could ever hope to match up to her. Least not in his lifetime. Sailor would do anything for his baby, even if that meant serving a 22 month term at the Pee Dee Correctional Institution on a manslaughter charge for taking the protection of her honor a little too seriously.

The rockin’ good news is that Lula has been waiting patiently for this day to come and is right there at the front gate for his release. Hell she even brought along his snakeskin jacket as she knows it’s a symbol of his individuality and belief in personal freedom. What a gal.

So here’s the plan and it’s just wild enough that it might just work. Break parole, leave Cape Fear behind in a trail of dust, and take an old-fashioned road trip to sunny California where their happy ending awaits. What’s there to lose? Well considering Lula is of the opinion that “one of these days the sun’s gonna come up and burn a hole clean through the planet like a giant electrical x-ray”, not a great deal by the sound of it.

Lula loves Sailor, Sailor loves Lula – and everything else means nothing at all. Apart from Sailor’s snakeskin jacket which is a symbol of his individuality and belief in personal freedom. And he’d lay that down over a gasoline spill just so Lula could cross to the other side without spoiling her dainty red shoes. That kind of chivalry gets her “hotter than Georgia asphalt” and thus she’ll willingly follow him to the end of the rainbow, wherever that may lead.

Of course, you can’t have a yellow brick road without a Wicked Witch of The West and, in Lula’s overbearing mother Marietta (Diane Ladd), we have ourselves a bona fide hell hag. Sailor didn’t receive much in the way of parental guidance growing up, whereas Lula’s had enough of that rot for two childhoods and not the gentle ushering variety either. When Lula hasn’t been burying her daddy or being loved less than tender by her Uncle Pooch at the tender age of 13, she’s been imprisoned under Marietta’s stifling regime. Deeply disapproving of her daughter’s unimpeachable affection for Sailor, and for reasons far more multifaceted than gut feeling, she has forbidden Lula to continue this liaison and it really didn’t get her far.

That’s just where a sideline in necromancy comes in handy. You see, there aren’t many witches more wicked than she, and it’s a heavy-hearted positive on long, black fingernails and crystal ball. Moreover, she’s got all manner of flying monkeys on speed dial, and has already given the green light for her four pretties to fly. One of these, her unassuming sweetheart Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), doesn’t see things Marietta’s way and has reluctantly agreed to play detective out of nothing other than undying devotion.

However, it’s the other three who should have Sailor and Lula glancing rather anxiously over their shoulders. Under the implicit instruction of deeply dubious hoodlum Marcello Santos (J. E. Freeman) to clean up this little mess in whatever manner he sees fit, assassins Juana (Grace Zabriskie), Reggie (Calvin Lockhart) and Dropshadow (David Patrick Kelly) are already blazing the trail.

Ignorance is bliss, so much so, that Sailor and Lula have found time to indulge their wild-hearted impulses and pull over to shake a roadside tail-feather. Sometimes the radio just don’t cut it and all that “start afresh” excitement has to come out some time right? The yellow brick road is long and there’s no sign of the rainbow just yet so why not endorse such whimsy? After all, they’re no longer shackled, just two wild young hearts running free, and Lula sees no reason to click those heels. Sailor is dandy too as, if it all goes tits due north, he can call on the mystical properties of his trusty snakeskin jacket, you know the symbol of his individuality and belief in personal freedom.

It’s not all been hearts and flowers though; not by the lengthiest of chalks. The road accident was a little unsettling, never more so than the moment where that poor unfortunate young girl (Sherilyn Fenn) stumbled free from the twisted metal, dropped to the dust before them, drew her final labored breaths and simply ceased to be.

Lula’s the kind of superstitious gal who views that kind of fateful play on human tragedy as a decidedly bad omen and suddenly those red heels are beginning to twitch some. The thing is – Lula loves Sailor, Sailor loves Lula – so regardless of the ominous place they’ve found their way to, as long as her baby’s stood right by her side, that place is already home. Big Tuna, Texas – here we come. Rockin’ good news!

The thing about good news is that you never know whether its shady cousin bad news has put a contract out on it unbeknownst to you. Big Tuna, Texas seems like a decent enough place to kick back for a few days and the locals have been nothing shy of hospitable since their arrival. Perdita (Isabella Rossellini), Buddy (Pruitt Taylor Vince), Timmy (Frank Collison), Sparky (Tim Lurie) and that loveable crazy drunk 00 Spool (Jack Nance) – all have welcomed our love birds with openish arms. If I were being pernickety, and I really don’t wish to get all Debbie Downer, then perhaps that Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) is worth offering a vaguely wide berth. Call it a hunch but I don’t trust a man whose teeth and eyes don’t relay the same message.

Look at him sitting there all glib and self-satisfied, like the kind of Grinch who’d think nothing of stealing Christmas and replacing it with Black Friday. I wouldn’t trust this gum-flashing greeb any farther than I could hock a loogie and don’t require a crystal ball to tell me that he’s up to something, likely no good I hasten to add. What sort of name is Bobby Peru anyway? I’d hedge a bet that this birth name was Robert Gene Brampton and he changed it just to wrong foot the bullies. Lula loves Sailor, Sailor loves Lula and three’s a crowd – that’s all I have to say on the matter. And keep those pretty painted nails inside your red shoes at all times Missy as you never know when you may need to click ’em.

One more thing before I leave you two sweethearts to find your rainbow – someone needs to pay a visit to our Wicked Witch of The West and it may as well be me, seeing as you have your hands full with Bobby Peru and all. I’m sure there’s no need for melancholy as mommie dearest has had plenty of time to reflect and also sufficient to call off her flying monkeys and let bygones be.

Come again Lula. What do you mean, Sailor and Bobby have just popped out for a bit? Did you not hear my implicit warning? You really are wild at heart ain’t cha? Listen, there’s no time right now, I’ve got a wicked witch to snoop on and three swooping monkeys to dodge. I’m sure your baby will be just fine, after all, he’s wearing his snakeskin jacket. Everything will come up dandelions and dew drops, just you see.

There’s a funny little thing about love as it will always find a way to somewhere over the rainbow, so long as two people believe in it. My advice to you both would be not to turn away from it. Lula loves Sailor, Sailor loves Lula – and everything else means nothing at all. What’s that dear? Don’t mention it, I’ve got to look out for my Dorothy. My name? Well, my birth name was Glenis Maude Pittman but you can call me Glinda the Good Witch of the North.

As we’ve come to expect from any fiction touched by David Lynch, Wild at Heart is every bit weird on top. Doused in reds, yellows, and sun-baked oranges, fire is used to administer fate, to remember the past, to learn and to yearn; and can be as constructive as it is destructive.

Flashbacks, symbolism, looped imagery, slow-motion, color overlays, thigh-slapping montages – all are present and correct here and each adds something to its ever more complex tapestry. That said, this is actually one of Lynch’s most readily accessible motion pictures for those not yet privy to his wicked game and, when you strip away the strange some, it’s as simple and pure a love story as they come.

Naturally, aside from an extraordinary, caustic Academy Award nominated turn from Ladd, a gentle beauty of one from the ever-magnanimous Stanton, and a gloriously gawking one from Dafoe, the burden of expectation lays squarely on the shoulders of our Sailor and Lula. Both Cage and Dern take to their brief like a couple in love and that reflects straight back out to the audience.

We all know Cage is no stranger to wildness as his in-built character positively endorses such fragrance; but not once does Dern stray from his side or he hers. Not really. The pair share a chemistry that is sweet, unforced, unbridled, unbroken, knowing, showing, growing, fearful, tearful, sassy, fierce, sexy, somber, hopeful, faithful and most of all true. As a direct result, it is the viewer that assumes the role of Good Witch and it feels our rightful duty to watch over them. Whether Wild at Heart is up there with his finest work is as short as it is long. What truly matters is that he not only understands but knows precisely how to harness the unmistakable power of cinema. I guess you really can find love in hell. And that’s rockin’ good news to this wild-hearted romantic.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

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Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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