Imagine The Wizard Of Oz with an oversexed witch, gun-toting Munchkins and love ballads from Elvis Presley, and you’ll get some idea of this erotic hellzapoppin from writer-director David Lynch. Lynch’s kinky fairy tale is a triumph of startling images and comic invention. In adapting Barry Gifford’s book Wild at Heart for the screen, Lynch does more than tinker. Starting with the outrageous and building from there, he ignites a slight love-on-the-run novel, creating a bonfire of a movie that confirms his reputation as the most exciting and innovative filmmaker of his generation.
All that’s left of the book is a chunk of pungent dialogue. Lynch dramatically alters the characters, adds liberally from his own wickedly demented imagination, pumps up the violence and erotica, throws in a Toto look-alike, a good and a bad witch and the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and then watches the sparks fly. Though lacking the organic clarity of Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart is a breathtaking display of movie magic that steadily tightens its hypnotic hold. Lynch, the man who shook TV by exposing the pits of cherry-pie America in Twin Peaks, revels in finding the logic in the random, the beauty in the broken. He’s a cockeyed pessimist, both appalled and thrilled by the dark secrets he uncovers.
The story, which begins in North Carolina, revolves around the love of Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern). “Jeez Louise, Sailor,” says Lula after one of their marathon sex bouts, “you are something else.” Sailor is equally besotted. Between the sex and the chain-smoking, these two seem in danger of burning themselves down. “You really are dangerously cute, Peanut,” he tells Lula as she paints her toenails red before doing the same to the town. They’re just two sweet, horny kids, except for their Lynch-load of psychological baggage. Raped at thirteen by her father’s business partner, Lula has a monster mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd), who arranged to have Lula’s father killed in a fire. And Sailor, despite his tender way with a Presley ballad (“Treat me like a fool/Treat me mean and cruel/But love me”), has a hidden past and a rebel streak. He wears a snakeskin jacket as “a symbol of individuality and my belief in personal freedom.” But his hot temper has a way of crimping his options.
At a dance hall, Marietta makes a lewd proposition to Sailor in a toilet. When he rejects her, she dispatches a hood to gut him. Sailor bashes the man’s head in, not once but repeatedly — Lynch is not one to skimp on the gore. Convicted of manslaughter, Sailor spends the next twenty-two months and eighteen days in prison. When his parole finally comes, the faithful Lula is waiting. They hop in her car and hit the road for California, encountering a mysterious collection of grotesques along the way. Recalling their favorite movie, they lament that “it’s too bad we couldn’t visit the Wizard of Oz to get good advice.”
They certainly need guidance. Marietta has sweet-talked her private-detective boyfriend Johnnie Farragut (the ever-eccentric Harry Dean Stanton) into trailing the runaways. Ladd, who is Dern’s real-life mother, squeezes her juicy role with scene-stealing zest. “No tongue — my lipstick,” says Marietta as Johnnie tries to steal a kiss. When Johnnie proves slow at finding Lula, Marietta takes more drastic action. “I’m gonna hire me a hit man,” she cackles like the Wicked Witch. That’s when she calls on her onetime lover Marcello Santos (J.E. Freeman), a mobster of surpassing repugnance.
Sailor and Lula are traveling a metaphorical yellow-brick road that Dorothy and Toto would hardly recognize. By the time the lovers reach New Orleans, they’re being pursued by several outsize creeps, including Mr. Reindeer (W. Morgan Sheppard), a hit man who lives in a whorehouse with bosomy topless valets, and a trio of ritual killers, played by Calvin Lockhart, David Patrick Kelly and Grace Zabriskie, who don’t spell good news for Johnnie or viewers with weak stomachs.
Wild at Heart abounds in Lynchian peculiarities. In a flashback, we meet Lula’s cousin Dell, played by that gifted oddball Crispin Glover. Dell is a nervous type who wishes that every day could be Christmas and relieves his anxiety by making countless sandwiches and putting cockroaches in his underwear. Lynch regards Dell’s perversities with the same detached, nonjudgmental wonder with which he views a decapitated head, a severed hand or flies on vomit.
Lynch’s special angle on the world is sometimes repellent but often smashingly effective. One roadside sequence, in which Sailor and Lula encounter the staggering victim of a car accident — played by Sherilyn Fenn, Audrey on Twin Peaks — resonates with a ghostly, poetic terror. Lynch’s gorgeously lurid style is superbly complemented by the photography of Frederick Elmes, who worked with Lynch on Eraserhead, Dune and Blue Velvet, and by the eerily evocative score of the Twin Peaks maestro Angelo Badalamenti.
Lynch wisely avoids letting technique overshadow emotion. Cage and Dern deliver phenomenal performances — they’re the hottest, oddest movie couple in years. Even those who can’t abide Cage — I found him an adenoidal horror in Peggy Sue Got Married — may have to capitulate to his daring in playing Sailor. He’s tried before to make his yearning eyes, choked voice and basset-hound deadpan add up to a unique personal style, most notably in Raising Arizona and Vampire’s Kiss. But this time it works awesomely. Cage gives Sailor an animal vibrancy that jumps off the screen. And Dern is his match. Meltingly lovely in Smooth Talk and Blue Velvet, Dern doesn’t overplay fragility the way she did in Haunted Summer and Fat Man and Little Boy. In fact, nothing she has done before prepares us for the lusty vividness she brings to Lula. Dern is a raunchy, radiant wonder. She makes us see that Lula is just as turned on by trading stories and experiences with Sailor as she is by jumping him in bed. “You move me, Sail, you really do,” she says. “You mark me the deepest.”
Lynch is clearly moved by the plight of these beleaguered innocents, but that doesn’t stop him from heaping on misfortunes. The worst comes in the boomed-out town of Big Tuna, Texas, where Sailor and the now pregnant Lula meet Bobby Peru, a psycho former marine ferociously acted by Willem Dafoe, and Bobby’s jealous girlfriend Perdita, played by the delicious Isabella Rossellini with blond hair and a bad attitude. “Big Tuna isn’t exactly Emerald City,” says Lula. No argument. After nearly raping Lula, Bobby involves Sailor in a robbery that results in shocking bloodshed, death and another five years in the pen for Sailor.
Some may be bothered by Lynch’s fantastical ending. It wouldn’t be fair to say more than that the final moments include another meeting of the lovers, a visit from the Good Witch, played by Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks), and a heartfelt version of “Love Me Tender” from Sailor. In any universe but one created by Lynch, the audience might feel stranded. But Lynch has a knack for heightened reality that keeps us attuned to the pleasures of the unexpected. “This whole world is weird on top and wild at heart,” says Lula. And who better to chart such a world than David Lynch? Even over the rainbow, he finds his own kind of truth.