The power of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart is the endurance of an Elvis Presley song (or two), the staying power of a children’s movie, and the sight and sound of a match being struck: romantically mellow, wackily comic, and deadly, darkly serious.
Lynch gets more and scarier mileage out of fire in Wild at Heart than he did out of Frank Booth’s lighter in Blue Velvet. In between the two came the game-changing Twin Peaks, which, soon after Wild at Heart, Lynch would round off with Fire Walk with Me. It’s easy to see the whole arc from Blue Velvet to Fire Walk with Me as part of a single centralizing vision, an identifiable phase of his artistic development—his “fire period,” if you like.
You find it everywhere in the reds and yellows of Wild at Heart: fire as a murder weapon; fire as the spark of recollection and of wisdom; not only a destructive force, but a creative one as well. The reds and yellows of Wild at Heart recall the reds of Hitchcock’s Marnie—the nagging, ever-present trigger to a memory that hovers just outside the border of consciousness and refuses to be grasped and confronted in all its detail. There as here we see red washes shroud the screen like the curtain between the lies we live and the truth we can’t face. Sailor tells Lula: “We all got a secret side, baby.”
Every time someone lights a cigarette in Wild at Heart (and, like Lynch himself, people smoke a lot in this film), there it is, the look and sound of combustion. Lynch relates fire and smoke to both violence and sex—and in so doing relates violence and sex to each other. Lula (Laura Dern) was born hot, and only a man given to spontaneous violence, Sailor (Nicolas Cage), can satisfy her. The word “chemistry” is barely sufficient to describe the tempestuous, explosive sexual energy that always throbs just beneath the surface of their relationship, and of the film, except when it breaks out in uncontrollable wildness of heart, causing Lula to frantically run in place on a hotel-room bed, or both of them to squirm with seething energy while seated in a moving car, or to stop that car and break into dance in a roadside field.
Wild at Heart is a genre-bender: love story, road movie, crime story, film noir, rock musical. Which is only to say that it’s a David Lynch movie—with the surreal overlay that, though present from the beginning, continued to surprise and baffle viewers with every new film he made. Here the surreal overlay is largely the film’s congruence with The Wizard of Oz. Lula is an unlikely Dorothy for the 1990s, but she longs for her rainbow just the same. Only when she clicks her heels together, nothing happens to get her out of her situation. Her mother, Mariette (Diane Ladd), the archetypal treacherous parent of so many fairy tales, is the Wicked Witch, sworn to get Sailor (tin man, scarecrow, and not-so-cowardly lion all rolled into one). The crystal ball is here, the long black fingernails, and the lethal balls of fire, as well as the deceptiveness of smoke and curtains and mirrors. The Good Witch arrives to guide Sailor onto the true path at a crucial juncture in their one-bad-thing-after-another adventure, and she arrives in the person of none other than Laura Palmer herself, Sheryl Lee from Twin Peaks, already transformed into a heavenly force for good two years before the angelic finale of Fire Walk with Me.
The cast of Wild at Heart is heavily populated with Lynch regulars, bringing with them both accidental and deliberate reminders of the worlds of Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, and Twin Peaks. Witness recurring gestures like a pointing finger or the striking of a match, and Lynch’s trademark cryptic dialogue: “My dog is always with me,” intones O.O. Spool (Jack Nance), with no dog in sight; “The eagle flies on Friday” just like “the black dog runs at night”; “Bobby Peru is a black angel”; and the signature line, “This whole world is wild at heart and weird on top,” may well be Lynch summing up his own art. All this makes it even harder to see Wild at Heart as anything but all of a piece with Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.
And yet: There’s a sense in which Wild at Heart is more a film on the cusp, for in it we see Lynch testing the waters, poking here and there, making his way toward the farther-out worlds of Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire. Already in Wild at Heart we have characters who seem to be aware of being characters, of having their destiny guided by forces from without as well as within, tools in a narrative. In a telling moment, Lula narrates the story of her cousin Dell, who wishes for Christmas all year long and lives in fear of aliens wearing black gloves. In the end, those aliens were “nothing but him all along.” We are our own monsters.
But in the summer of ’90, Lynch wasn’t quite there yet. The people of Wild at Heart also have the ability to become their own salvation. Sailor deadpans that his snakeskin jacket is a symbol of his individuality and belief in personal freedom. Does the Good Witch really come to him, or does he imagine her in a fever dream? Does the Wicked Witch really, literally vaporize? The world stops (and so does the movie) as Sailor sings “Love Me Tender” to Lula. David Lynch leaves us scratching our heads and asking, as we have so many times before, “Is he serious?”
Robert C. Cumbow is the author of books on John Carpenter and Sergio Leone. His work that originally appeared on 24 Lies a Second, The House Next Door, and Movietone News is archived on The Parallax View. He teaches in the Film Studies Program at Seattle University, and practices and teaches intellectual property law in Seattle.