Weird on Top: David Lynch's Wild at Heart
“My dog barks, some. Mentally you picture my dog, but I have not told you the type o' dog which I have. Perhaps you might even picture Toto... from "The Wizard of Oz." But I can tell you, my dog is always with me. ARF!”
Oh, David Lynch, you crazy mofo. You changed my whole world when I saw Blue Velvet as a young teen. I’d been going to the movies all my life, sure, but you…it’s like you popped my film-going cherry. I can mark my time on Earth as a film fan as pre-Blue Velvet or post-Blue Velvet, and for this, I am forever grateful to him. We at TFS are writing about our favorite Lynch films in the run up to the premiere of the new Twin Peaks. I’m the lucky one who gets to talk about Wild at Heart.
I saw Wild at Heart at the theatre when it originally came out. Like Blue Velvet, I sat there in the dark, completely stunned at what I was seeing on the screen. I was repelled and, yet, giddy at the same time. Just what in the fuck was I watching here?
Based on Barry Gifford’s 1990 book Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula, Lynch’s film is a clusterfuck of the strange. Essentially, it’s a road picture but the journey to get there is filled with sex, murder, and plenty of weirdness.
Sailor (good period Nicolas Cage in a role that would absolutely not surprise you) is in love with Lula (Laura Dern). Lula loves Sailor. So far, so good. Throw in Lula’s completely wackadoo mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd), who is out to kill Sailor for reasons we eventually learn and now the story starts cooking with kerosene.
The couple go on the run after Sailor gets paroled from prison for manslaughter. They get the hell out of Dodge and head west. First stop, the big NO. Marietta wants her daughter back with her and wants Sailor dead so she sends not one but two people to accomplish the task. One, her lover and private dick Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) and the other, her lover from another mother, Marcello Santos (J.E. Freeman), a local crime boss. Farragut tells Marietta he’ll get Lula back but he doesn’t want anything to do with killing. Santos is happy to murder anyone and everyone. Sailor and Lula manage to get away from New Orleans without being caught but not before they have a hell of a lot of sex.
Back on the road, they drive through Texas and stop in Big Tuna. Yeah, it looks exactly how you’d picture a town in Texas called Big Tuna, replete with the weirdest mix of characters staying at the local motel you’re likely to find, even for a Lynch film. Among the guests are both Jack Nance and John Lurie. Honestly, had Tom Waits shown up to sing a song and murder a bunch of hobos, it would not have surprised me. Also, among the crew is Mr. Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), one of the vilest characters to ever appear on screen. He manages to rope Sailor into robbing the local feed store but not before grossing out everyone in the process. Some bad shit goes down in Big Tuna before it’s all over and the couple is, once again, split apart for a time.
Like most Lynch films, Wild at Heart was controversial at the time. It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes but just as many people hated it there as loved it. Critical reaction was pretty much the same. What’s stunning to me was Diane Ladd being nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. What on earth?! Her portrayal as Marietta Fortune is all one level; absolute fever pitch. Not only does Ladd chew the scenery, she rips it out with her teeth, swallows it, and then vomits it all over the bathroom walls. Bless her, I like the performance but holy hell, what were Academy voters thinking? 1990 was a strange time.
Just think of Wild at Heart as a Hope and Crosby Road movie. Just two people having some wacky adventures on their way to somewhere fun but in this case, stopping in all the circles of hell getting there. Okay, but now imagine Hope and Crosby having loads of sex with each other and all the while some crazy-ass Dorothy Lamour was trying to have one of them murdered. With me so far? Now throw in Elvis Presley, speed metal, snakeskin, several Twin Peaks cast members, and a shit ton of Wizard of Oz imagery. Add a pinch of Crispin Glover, some Gulf of Tonkin, and a splash of gasoline. Toss on a match and POOF…magic.