by Jim Eaton-Terry
Wild at Heart seems to be the one universally accepted dud in David Lynch’s back catalogue. There are the early oddities (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune), his masterpiece Blue Velvet, then the nightmarish trilogy of Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Wild At Heart is dismissed as Lynch lite, his one attempt at a mainstream lovers-on-the-run movie fatally flawed by compromises to commercial acceptability in the wake of Twin Peaks.
To the 17-year old me in 1990, however, it all looked very different. It’s hard to imagine just how like a rock star Lynch was at that point. Wild at Heart, his first cinema release since Blue Velvet, was trumpeted with an NME cover story, months of press mentions, the mainstream cult of Twin Peaks, and even a documentary based, as I recall, on the fact that both Lynch and Jonathan Ross liked to button the collars of their shirts.
Seeing the film for the first time, in a small local arts centre, is one of the defining cinema moments of my adolescence. Certain scenes and lines are still etched on my memory, two decades later.
Looking at the film now it’s a much odder proposition than I’d remembered. The script is more or less a straightforward Elmore Leonard steal, and it’s easy to see how one of the hipper auteurs who’ve emerged since Lynch would have turned it into a slick piece of entertainment; it’s not hard to see True Romance as an ironed-out retread of Wild at Heart. The last half hour, once Willem Dafoe’s utterly repulsive Bobby Peru turns up, is particularly close to Tarantino’s better films and is the least interesting section of the film.
But in Lynch’s hands the material becomes darker and more terrible than Tarantino or Soderbergh could ever have produced. As always with Lynch, the plot is more or less an excuse to dredge his subconscious and no-one has an unconscious like David Lynch. His usual tics – crazy old people, flames – are joined by a series of road accidents, demented sex rituals (what the fuck *is* the buffalo hunting bit?) and echoes of Wizard of Oz.
I’d sort of remembered a lot of those moments (I can’t imagine anyone forgetting Dianne Ladd chasing the car on a broomstick or Jack Nance’s “my dog barks some” scene), but what really stands out is the texture and tone of the film. In one sense it lurches wildly in tone from the cartoon violence and thrash metal of the lovers to the daytime soap of Ladd, Stanton and Freeman. Throughout, though, Lynch creates an eerie, acrylic surface which at once distances you from and brings closer to the action. The clip below is the defining moment of Wild at Heart for me; it starts funny, with Dern shrieking and Cage’s brilliant Elvis karate dancing, then the metal fades out, replaced by one of Badalamenti ‘s syrupy, synthetic melodies as they embrace in front of a preposterous sunset. As with all of Lynch’s best moments, it toggles between being utterly sincere and completely cynical.
Speaking of Nicolas Cage, he has probably never been better; he takes a completely stock character and, pretty much by turning his Elvis impression up to 11 and playing Sailor entirely straight, creates an unforgettable, inimitable – again, watch True Romance – performance. At points he’s in a different film to the rest of the cast, but that just adds to the impact.
Looking at the film now I can see why I loved it at 17: endlessly quotable, it does sex and violence brilliantly, with just enough distance to make you feel respectable watching , fulfilling the function in 1990 that Betty Blue did five years earlier. Though I still love a bit of thinly justified sex and violence, the reason it’s still my favourite Lynch film is the tension between his obvious intent to make a straightforward thriller and the demented, cackling imagination that bursts through in almost every scene.
Jim Eaton-Terry tweets on occasion
The BFI’s David Lynch season continues to the 29th of February.