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Love me tender
A US region 1 DVD review of WILD AT HEART by Slarek

There are some for whom Wild at Heart is the quintessential David Lynch film, while others regard it as a work in which the director is overplaying his trademark weirdness card, and it's possible to sympathise and yet disagree with both camps. A sexually charged, sometimes very violent and frequently bizarre melding of road movie, surrealist nightmare and fairy tale, it also celebrates the power of love to win through against the highest odds, and has at its core an almost bewildering innocence and purity. But if this suggests an indigestible Notting Hill-like tweeness then you've got the wrong picture in your head – the love story here is driven not by fumbling embarrassment or dewey-eyed looks of longing, but by a passion strong enough to tear mountains in two. This is a love story for adventurous adults, something that Lynch goes out of his way to to establish from the opening scene. And if you're offended by strong language, I'd proceed with caution.

It starts like this. As Sailor Ripley and his girlfriend Lula descend the staircase of an opulent Carolina ballroom, they are waylaid by thug-for-hire Bobby Ray Lemon, who accuses Sailor of trying to fuck Lula's momma Marietta. He then makes an unhealthy reference to "that cute little cunt Lula," and tries to kill Sailor with a flick-knife. To the aggressive opening strains of Powermad's Slaughterhouse, Sailor violently blocks the attack, beats the man senseless, throws him down the stairs and repeatedly rams his head into the marble floor until it's reduced to a squishy, bloodied mess. That should see off the Mills and Boon crowd. Sailor spends a couple of years in the pokey on a charge of manslaughter with mitigating circumstances, time that passes in a cinematic flash, during which it is made clear that Marietta detests Sailor and will do all in her power to keep him from seeing Lula again. Lula, however, remains devoted to her man and has no intention whatever of heeding her possessive mother's wishes. On Sailor's release, he and Lula hit the road on a journey that will test their resolve and the strength of their relationship to the full.

The relationship between Sailor and Lula is central to Wild at Heart and is one driven by passion, a powerful meeting of souls and bodies that feels erotically charged even when the two are fully clothed and standing by a road side. Sex is explosive and energetic, and the well-worn connection between sex and smoking is made through the lighting of a cigarette in massive close-up, with the fire of the burning match being both symbolic and narratively relevant. This core reality, as honest and respectful as any relationship in modern American cinema, underpins the stylistic cool of the pair, icons in a world in which only they are aware of it. They always look good, whether driving, standing, or sitting in a bar, every move and word having a studied artificiality to it. Yet it never feels false – this is how these two are, and in the weird world of Wild at Heart they represent a central stability around which the strangeness can happily orbit. Thus when Sailor meets up with Lula for the first time in two years, he is as excited to see his snake skin jacket ("a symbol of my individuality and of my belief in personal freedom") as he is to be reconciled with his girl – once his image is complete, then so is he. The pair represent a fantasy of idealised rock 'n' roll hipness in an imperfect and dangerous world – he is tough and alluring, she is hot and defiant, together they are emotional and sexual dynamite, refreshingly open and honest about their feelings and desires and brimming over with cool. Man, facsimiles of the two even appeared a few years later in a Cadbury's Heroes commercial – what other David Lynch feature could give birth to something that the ad men would actually consider marketable? (Actually, I've always fancied the idea of Henry Spencer biting the heads off Jelly Babies, but that's another story.)

It really is the performances that sell the characters here, so let's talk about the two leads for a second. Nicholas Cage is, to say the least, a little unpredictable. He can be wildly over-the-top – Snake Eyes or, God forbid, Captain Corelli's Mandolin – or wonderfully underplay a role, as in Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation, and as a producer he was so mesmerised by E. Elias Merhidge's extraordinary avant garde mindfuck Begotten that he hired him to direct Shadow of the Vampire. In many ways Sailor Ripley is the perfect role for Cage, a chance to play a character who is larger than life but still anchored in an emotional reality, a man who is one part Bruce Lee, one part James Dean and a whole dollop of Jailhouse Rock-era Elvis Presley. It's perfect casting – having seen the film, you can't imagine any other actor playing the role: Nicholas Cage IS Sailor Ripley.

And what of Laura Dern, whose fortunes seem to have been strangely fleeting? She was all very well looking wide-eyed at dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but check out Citizen Ruth to see just what a fine comic actress she can be given the right role. Little about her debut in Lynch's Blue Velvet prepared us for the extraordinary confidence and boldness of her portrayal of Lula – here Dern is a compelling screen presence, independently minded, sexually charged and resilient. Completely and utterly devoted to each other, Lula and Sailor are one of the most instantly likeable couples in modern cinema, and without question the hippest.

If Sailor and Lula are an exaggeration of reality, then just about everyone else in the film falls into categories ranging from the oddball to the downright insane. While this provides a series of typically Lynchian scene-by-scene delights, there is a sense overall that where the strangeness of Blue Velvet and Lost Highway had a very specific purpose, here it feels almost as if Lynch has used the concept of a love story in a world where things were "falling apart, getting crazier by the day" to have surrealistic fun, in the process seeing just how many peculiar characters and situations he can cram into one film. This makes it at times play like Twin Peaks on acid, with actors from that and the director's other works popping up to do sometimes very memorable guest spots: David Patrick Kelly hovers in the background as a gangster's henchman; Freddie Jones talks in a helium pitched voice about the problem with pigeons; Sherylin Fenn (in a genuinely disturbing and strangely realistic scene) plays a badly injured survivor of a car crash obsessed with finding her lost bobby pin; Isabella Rossellini glides in as Sailor's ex-girlfriend; Jack Nance plays a half-mad ex-rocket scientist; and Grace Zabrinski has a manic, nightmarish turn as the voodoo-driven contract killer Juana Durango. Though there are, as you'd expect, some dark elements to the film, there are times when this gives way very effectively to Lynch's fondness for oddball comic moments – the wide-eyed, crutch-weilding hotelier, for instance, who suggests "Well, perhaps we should contact a local law enforcement officer!" in an outraged, upper crust English accent never fails to reduce me to a fit of giggles.

Though many characters are randomly encountered, as many others are interconnected, and their existence and dark purpose becomes gradually (though only ever partially) clear as the narrative progresses. Their entry into the story is triggered by Marietta (marvelously played by Diane Ladd, Laura Dern's real world mother) who, furious at her daughter's decision to run off with a man she detests, engages ageing private detective Johnnie Farragut (the fabulous Harry Dean Stanton) – a man hopelessly devoted to her – to track down the pair. Immediately uncertain that Farragut is up to the job, Marietta then contacts gangster and sometime lover Marcello Santos (J.E. Freeman) to hunt Sailor and kill him. Santos works for the mysterious and powerful Mr. Reindeer (William Morgan Sheppard), from whom he requests two hits, one on Sailor and the other on Johnnie Farragut, for whom Santos has nothing but contempt. Reindeer engages the batty Juana to take care of Johnnie, while Sailor becomes the target of the psychotic Bobby Peru.

Ah yes, Bobby Peru. I think I would be pushed to think of a single character in all of American movie history as genuinely, unpleasantly sleazy as Mr. Peru. Played with horrible relish by Willem Dafoe, he is an almost cartoon representation of amoral temptation and intimidation, with his greasy looks, stubby teeth and loudly juvenile attitude to women and bodily functions. Yet like Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, there is a worrying truth at the character's core, something recognisable and detestable that makes every encounter with him an uncomfortable one. This is never more blatant than in the scene in which he verbally rapes Lula – shot in squirm-inducingly huge close-up, the sight of Peru's horrible mouth and quivering lips, especially on a cinema screen, is an image that stays with you but that you want desperately to wash from your brain.

If the film bristles with extraordinary scenes, Lynch does not always bring them together with the same sense of purpose as he did in Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Occasionally he breaks with tradition by adapting imagery and iconography from other sources, including his own work: the dankly decorated, vomit-stained motel room in which Sailor and Lula find themselves as their relationship is tested to the max can't help but recall the bleakness of Henry Spencer's apartment in Eraserhead; several direct references are made to The Wizard of Oz (a film Lynch loves); and a strikingly surreal moment involving a dog and a human hand from the opening scene in Kurosawa's Yojimbo is recreated towards this film's end. The script, of course, was itself an adaptation of Barry Gifford's novel, but the author freely admits that Lynch has taken the source material and run with it – Wild at Heart may have been a Barry Gifford book, but it sure as hell is a David Lynch film, and there is so much striking imagery, so much atmosphere and so many wonderfully wild ideas here, that even the more obvious references feel somhow like they are being played for the first time.

Wild at Heart is true to its most oft-quoted line, being most definitely "wild at heart and weird on top." And if it lacks the narrative power and purpose of Lynch's best works, then it pretty much makes up for this by way of its compellingly colourful characters, Lynch's consistently inventive use of sound and imagery, and for a slew of extraordinary individual scenes. That these do not quite gel into a perfect whole is perhaps not really a problem given the dream-like nature of the work, and it's still leagues ahead of most other contemporary American cinema – in its daring, its imagination, and its gorgeously unforced cool. It is, in all that is positive in that term, the very essence of high profile cult cinema. And you know what? It's also a fucking great love story.

sound and vision

On the extras Lynch talks about the problems they had with the first print they were preparing for this DVD and how MGM – "Bless them" – sprung for a spanking new print from the original negative, which was then painstakingly colour corrected and timed for the DVD release. An my was it worth it. OK, there are a few compression artefacts on areas of single colour in darker scenes, and some grain is visible here and there, but on the whole this is a gloriously good transfer – pin sharp, with great colour reproduction and a very nice contrast range. Black levels are spot on. Full marks to those at MGM who greenlighted this remaster, and to those who painstakingly carried it out.

The 5.1 sound sits mainly at the front, which is a shame, but otherwise this is a tasty mix, with fine use made of the lower frequencies for sinister rumbles, gunshots, the darker notes in Angelo Baldalamenti's typically evocative score, and the big close-ups of striking matches, which almost sound, as Willem Dafoe says in the extras, like an bomb going off.

extra features

The lack of a director's commentary will come as no surprise to those used to Lynch's previously negative view of home video formats in general, but there are signs here that he may be warming to DVD a little, at least if he is given enough control over the content (see David Lynch on the DVD below). It even has chapter stops, something Lynch always annoyingly opposed in the past.

Love, Death, Elvis and Oz: The Making of Wild at Heart (29:49) is a new retrospective documentary on creation of the film, presented in anamorphic 16:9 and featuring interviews with David Lynch, writer Barry Gifford, actors Nicholas Cage, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe, Diane Ladd, Grace Zabriskie, Crispin Glover, Sheryl Lee and J.E. Freeman, producer Steve Golin, cinematographer Frederick Elms and editor Duwayne Dunham. Although consistently upbeat about every aspect of the production and with a certain amount of (sincere) back-slapping (Lynch, for instance, describes Laura Dern as "the best actress I have ever worked with"), there is nonetheless some very interesting stuff here, in particular Diane Ladd and daughter Laura Dern's take on playing out their relationship on-screen as such extreme and antagonistic characters. Footage of Lynch at work is always welcome, but a moment of genuine frustration is provided by talk of shots cut from the scene in which Juana tortures Johnny Farragut that was apparently so extreme that it sent almost three quarters of the preview audience scurrying from the cinema, shots that just scream out to be included as an extra feature and are not.

Dell's Lunch Counter consists of a series of short interviews with cast and crew members not included in the above documentary and dealing with specific scenes or characters. These are: Lula's Moma (3:05); Sailor and Lula get Born (1:52); "Wild at Heart and Weird on Top" (2:26); The Red Pipe (2:13), which talks about Lynch's almost Hamster Factor-ish obsession for detail; Pigeons (2:11), another taunt for the inclusion of a fascinating-sounding deleted scene; The Good Witch (1:43); Cannes (3:42); "Not Your Head-Head" (1:24); and The Snakeskin Jacket (2:15). All are anamorphic 16:9.

Sailor and Lula Image Gallery (2:11) is a rolling gallery of publicity stills of the two stars, set to music and anamorphic 16:9.

Specific Spontaneity: Focus on David Lynch (7:16) is a new featurette on Lynch, made up from interviews shot for the main documentary and creating the impression that he is the greatest guy in the world to work for. Again this is anamorphic 16:9, and by now there is a niggling sensation that three of the special features listed here are in fact just one, fragmented to create the illusion of more. Nonetheless, largely interesting stuff.

The third extra featuring interview footage left over from the documentary, David Lynch on the DVD (2:46) is at least specific enough to its subject to feel as if it was recorded precisely for this extra feature. Here Lynch gives a clear and interesting explanation of the crucial post-production processes of colour correction and timing, and the problems they encountered remastering the print for this DVD.

The Original EPK Featurette (6:54) is pretty much what you'd expect and framed 4:3.

TV Spots (1:08) has four almost identical TV spots voice-over by Trailer Voice Man's sober cousin. Inevitably, these are 4:3.

Finally Theatrical Trailer (1:50) is a rather nice piece of work and framed anamorphic 2.35:1.

I don't count Other Great MGM Releases as a legitimate special feature since it is a series of (tacky) commercials for material not related to this film.


Despite (or possibly because of) its surrealistic elements and structure, sexual and emotional passion and sometimes explicit violence, Wild at Heart has proved to be one of David Lynch's most widely acclaimed films, winning the Palme D'Or at Cannes and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Diane Ladd. Despite some scattershot narrative development, it remains a hugely enjoyable and imaginative work from one of the few genuine masters working in modern American cinema. MGM's region 1 DVD is as close to a fully fledged special edition as we're likely to get, with the transfer alone making it worth the purchase. Rockin' good news!

Wild at Heart

US 1990
124 mins
David Lynch
Nicholas Cage
Laura Dern
Diane Ladd
Willem Dafoe
Isabella Rossellini
Harry Dean Stanton
Crispin Glover

DVD details
region 1
2.35:1 anamorphic
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
Dolby 2.0 mono (Spanish only)
Making-of documentary
Original EPK
Extended interviews
David Lynch on the DVD
Image gallery
Director profile
TV spots
Theatrical trailer
release date
7 December 2004
review posted
6 June 2005

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See all of Slarek's reviews