If David Lynch ever had a crack at crossover success in the cinema it was with Wild at Heart.
Shot after the pilot of “Twin Peaks” and released at the height of the show’s popularity, Wild at Heart was the first time that a David Lynch film hinged on being a DAVID LYNCH FILM. Sure, his films still get promoted that way—when they come out at least, to date Lynch hasn’t put out a movie since 2006’s Inland Empire—but this was the first instance that the avant director’s name carried weight outside of the arthouse.
On paper, things looked good for Lynch: the film was based on popular novel; it boasted two talented, attractive leads in steamy roles (Laura Dern and Nic Cage at his Nic Cagiest); had several members of the “Twin Peaks” cast pop in for cameos; and it won the Palm D’or at Cannes. The story of a pair of young lovers on the run from the young girl’s psychotic mother sticks largely to convention, but doesn’t lack in the director’s token knack for violence and dark humor.
So did Wild at Heart tear up the box office?
Of course it didn’t.
While far from a flop, Wild at Heart was just as advertised: a David Lynch film. Rather than deliver a juicy, pulpy crime story, Lynch offered up a sun-bleached, heavy metal version of The Wizard of Oz, complete with witches, yellow brick roads and the clicking heels of ruby slippers.
Through Sailor and Lula, Lynch continues his early quest of showing the wormy underbelly of Americana—all loaded with noir characters and surreal bursts of fancy. Dern and Cage both take on personas based on classic American rebels, with Dern squirming her best Monroe and Cage drawling and swaggering away like Elvis. But Lynch turns these personas on their heads. Decked out in leather halter tops and a snake skin jacket, Dern and Cage make a ridiculous pair, all thrashing around to power metal like cartoon characters. The film’s villains are just as animated, especially Willem Dafoe who saunters on screen with a mouthful of rotten teeth.
In Roger Ebert’s negative review of the film he claims “There is something repulsive and manipulative about it, and even its best scenes have the flavor of a kid in the school yard, trying to show you pictures you don’t feel like looking at.”
This isn’t wholly off base. Wild at Heart does, at times, seem like it’s trying too hard. It shoehorns humor into dark moments that would likely have more impact if were to just left on its own, and it’s often difficult to tell if Lynch’s wilder images are either brilliant—like Sheryll Lee dropping in as the Glinda the Good Witch; or plain stupid—three obese women dancing around in lingerie.
Still, parsing out the brilliant from the stupid is part of the fun of dancing with David Lynch, and despite its shortcomings, Wild at Heart is one of Lynch’s breezier rides.