A question: Have you ever seen a movie that made you want so furiously to scribble down notes about its greatness while watching that you were actually annoyed that it kept you looking at the screen with its unapologetic greatness to the point of being unable to write anything down legibly? I ask in this form, of course, because naturally I’m only writing to people who would want to write down notes about movies while watching. Everyone else who could conceivably see this film will probably be turned off by how garishly oppressive and gloriously messy it is to have any interest in reading this. And they’d be completely right too, but I still like the film anyway.
So then, what does cinematic circus master David Lynch pull out of bag of tricks this time? Well the narrative, functionally, is just two kids head-over-heels in love, Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern), on the run from mother-dearest, Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd) – it’s a road movie about escaping suburbia. But on top of this, Lynch has a field-day. Flashbacks, inserts, all manner of foggy lighting, distorted fish-eye lens, stagey background work, cartoon-character dress-up, visual repetition, color-coding, lurid melodrama, kitschy satire, pop-culture smorgasbord, campy soap opera, all manner of deranged The Wizard of Oz references, and whatever Lynch had for breakfast that morning.
You’re excused for wiping the sweat off your face while I go on to mention how the whole film is all very open about its artificiality. Case in point: the references to The Wizard of Oz serve essentially no purpose other than to show off. And yet, as displayed here, that is exactly what The Wizard of Oz was doing in 1939, and exactly what every film does in a sense – combining artificial images to produce something that catches the eye and grabs the attention, even when they try desperately to approximate reality. Lynch is just more proud about his showing off and wants to let us know he’s doing exactly that, while other films try to hide it. The film throws and spews its visual palpitations at us in the most cavalier manner possible. At one point, the camera cuts to Nicolas Cage’s character dressed in a completely black outfit, sunglasses hiding any semblance of humanity, and a cigarette there because it would be cool for there to be one, and he lays the film’s intentions out for us as clear as the too-bright daylight around him: “what the hell am I doing here?”
And this is to say nothing of the film’s audio work, which conveys dreamlike detachment and formalistic distance even as it puts us in the trenches of the film’s non-environment. One notable element is repetition, captured subtly in the overpowering presence of women screaming throughout the film. They are impossibly shrill and often sound identical, but convey different purposes: the same scream in an early scene transitions from a fear over a loved one being killed to a fear of that loved one killing another, and later we have the same theatrical screaming to convey at various points fan-girlish theater, insanity ripped visually out of The Shining (in a none-too-subtle mockery of the way films revel in blood even as they use obviously, garishly opulent reds that more closely resemble lipstick than the real deal), and pure cold-hearted movie villainy. The effect, especially when the screaming characters are looking directly at the camera and openly rendering this a “film”, is gloriously subversive: filmmakers use the sight of women screaming to define their characters, and essentially use the same shrill theatrical version of womanhood courtesy of the male gaze to convey just about any emotion they want, thereby defining the female character as fundamentally one-note. Lynch sees their implicit misogyny and lays it out bare for all to see.
More obvious is the film’s playful scoring. It uses the same themes and songs monotonously (as it does with some shots too, mostly ones related to sex to convey the sheer abstract boredom and monotony of the act even among people who love, if not each other, the image of each other). In doing so, it conveys a timeless dreamlike quality – the music goes between guttural ’80s metal and light-as-a-feather early ’50s rock – but it also conveys a clinically cyclical formalism by essentially putting songs over scenes as if on shuffle. The whole film fulfills this claim: it’s far more obviously formalistic than Lynch’s previous work Blue Velvet, bridging that film’s straightforward decay with the more esoteric grime of Eraserhead. It doesn’t convey a real place out of reality, like Blue Velvet, but something very obviously constructed by a mad-man out of pieces of other time periods and styles, a Frankenstein’s Monster with Lynch the mad scientist caught up in his own ego.
And like that character, the film’s patchwork nature makes it perhaps less workable as a cohesive unit and infinitely more fascinating as an experiment that reveals a degraded humanity even as it eschews it. The film is, in other words, obviously artificial and even dementedly so – why does Lynch throw all these tricks at us? He’s not interested in telling us, that’s for sure. It seems, more than anything, that he’s just pulling our leg, asking us to look for meaning when it’s really just a hodge-podge of nonsense. This is Lynch giving us one of his most seemingly straightforward films and ripping it out from under us, creating one of his most arch anti-movies.
What we have then is a road movie that takes the careless episodic-ness of road movies to new heights by essentially eschewing narrative complexity or form completely – this is an anti-road movie, specifically. Within all this, however, the most fascinating aspect of the film is that Lynch really does love these characters and doesn’t see them as bad people. The film isn’t nihilistic – it’s intentionally abrasive, yes, but it also exhibits Lynch’s undying love for the classic cinema he often deconstructs in other films. If the two leads only love each other for the image they reflect, the film also proudly upholds that rock ‘n’ roll image, as well as the images of the films which bring them to life. The characters, for all their fakeness, really do have a genuine passion for each other and really do come to care about what they care about, whatever that may be. They feel love and warmth and kindness, something missing from so many other meta-film commentaries on the nature of storytelling – even if the romance does approximate that which can only be found in a film, it still holds meaning for the characters, and that’s what matters. The film’s end credits are impossibly romantic even as they ruthlessly mock years of stagey movie romances.
And if the film mocks The Wizard of Oz for its artifice, it also loves it for the same reason. Witness, for instance, how the film gives us artificial image after-image of Lula’s mother performing the Wicked Witch, but by the end, she actually comes to look like the character in her very existence, without any obvious manipulation by Lynch. The key, of course, is that he is still behind the scenes manipulating the whole thing, but the movies have the power to make this manipulation define character and bring them come to life. This is an anti-movie that is thoroughly, completely in love with movies. And it reveals, within Lynch’s messy, contemptible, depraved heart, that he really does care about real people, giving two social outcasts (who revel in lunacy and depravity and find passion and warmth within; Lynch may see more than a little of himself in them) a classicist death drama about their exclusion from society that undeniably doesn’t feel for them. But Lynch is here to rescue them, not to mock them. He cares about these characters, whether they exist in reality or in his dreams. Or, more likely, in the impression of the cinema itself – the cinema Lynch undeniably loves. If The Wizard of Oz used artifice to reflect on the dangers of a child’s fantasy-life way from the safety of home, Lynch turns this on its head by making the Wicked Witch the suburban mother, the very beacon of home, and he urges his two love-birds to fly way as far they can. If he’s flipping the traditionalist Wizard of Oz on its head, he’s still upholding the power of its imagery. All of this functionally amounts to Lynch having his cake and eating it too, but that’s David Lynch for you: he’ll do what he wants, even when that often entails contradicting himself.
Functionally, Wild at Heart plays like a rock ‘n’ roll version of Blue Velvet, a giddily depraved indictment of Americana filtered through Lynch’s own enigmatic and cryptic cynicism. However, it’s also much further off the deep end than Blue Velvet for the fact that its directorial bravura serves a much less obvious purpose. In Blue Velvet, it’s fairly easy to comprehend that a transition from an almost artificially lush suburban turf to the severed ear underneath is a metaphor for the decay found within a nominally pristine Americana. It’s not in any way easy to comprehend Wild at Heart’s mix of surrealism, impressionism, hyper-realism, proud, grandstanding theater, and Nicolas Cage. Here, the subversive-ness isn’t found in diegetic metaphors (objects found in the film’s world) as in Blue Velvet, but the celluloid itself – in Lynch’s cuts and his framing. It’s in the very bones of the film. This is about as dreamily nightmarish a film as can be found. And that’s a whole ‘nother world from a nightmarishly dreamy, of which there are many that ran the gamut from great to inexhaustibly great. But they’re a far easier beast to understand – many films use the visual language of nightmares (angular cameras, distorted shadows) to convey a dream, but few use the language of dreams (wide, enigmatic shots, artificial acting, abrupt tone shifts, impressionism rather than expressionism) to convey a nightmare of pure corrupted, artificial Americana. That’s filmmaking-in-the-bones for you, there.
And those bones, unlike with Blue Velvet, don’t entirely attempt to club Americana to death either. Here, as mentioned, he exhibits a real love not only for his characters, but the lives they live and the Americana they do come to live by –thus Cage gleefully takes over a metal concert to break into an Elvis rendition – and Lynch wonderfully interconnects music from all eras of the past fifty years of pop culture into a stew of his own making. He uses The Wizard of Oz as a horrific marker of the mundane and the dreaded suburban home life – yes – but even in doing so he uplifts the power of perhaps an assumedly safe American film classic by using it for a decidedly more sinister purpose. This is a celebration of American weirdness and the oddballs, like Lynch, who love it. In this sense it may be, more than any other film, his most heartfelt work, a personal confession and an ode to that which he has spent his filmic life critiquing.
None-the-less, the film is an absolute mess; a glorious, anarchic one, but a mess none-the-less. It’s a good thing then that Lynch really doesn’t care whether you figure it all out. No, that’s incorrect. He does care: he actively doesn’t want you to understand. This can breed contempt, yes, if the film doesn’t work, but Lynch’s propulsive energy is too much to deny here. Yet, the film is too busy being interesting to ever be a masterpiece – Lynch is too busy creating a series of images seemingly for the hell of it to truly construct a masterfully affecting film. And it is at this point that I must confess that I’ve spent the entire review praising a movie I don’t necessarily love. The film is, for all its unbridled passion and charisma, so frenzied and destructive that it threatens the very film itself – after finishing, I was as tired as I was excited, and I remembered less a movie than a collection of scenes. But they are great scenes, and they form about as dangerous and righteously impassioned and drearily droll a non-masterpiece as I’ve seen. And that’s worth something in an age of films that try so hard to be great they end up boring. David Lynch, as always, has other plans.