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‘Wild at Heart’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 17, 1990

David Lynch's "Wild at Heart" is unlike anything that's ever been made before. It's swampy and destabilizing in that subversive, perversely original, signature Lynchian way. But "Wild at Heart" isn't the David Lynch movie that anyone could have hoped for -- not his new fans, who've discovered him through "Twin Peaks," or his older ones.

At his best -- in "Eraserhead," "Blue Velvet" and the pilot for "Twin Peaks" -- Lynch achieves a fragile, almost godlike tone, where comedy and tragedy bleed together, and irony and passionate, obsessive sincerity are mixed in precisely equal portions. His images are projections straight from the bogs of the unconscious, and they make it onto the screen raw and undiluted, dripping wet. There's an ineffable potency and danger in them -- they carry vibrations from the lizard realm -- and, watching his films, we can be simultaneously repulsed and enthralled.

"Wild at Heart," though, is lacking in the dreamlike irrevocability of his most brilliant work. From the outset, just after the wondrously poetic opening credits, he seems to misstep. In "Wild at Heart" -- which Lynch adapted from a novel by Barry Gifford -- the director is working with pulp conventions; it's a road movie about a pair of seemingly doomed young lovers named Lula and Sailor (Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage) on the run from the girl's hysterical mother (Dern's real mother, Diane Ladd). But Lynch wants to explode the rules of the game without really understanding them.

It's not that Lynch has gone too far -- he went just as far in "Blue Velvet" -- it's that he's gone wrong. There are flashes of virtuosity in "Wild at Heart," but too much of what he's created here verges on self-parody. It's as if, for the first time, Lynch were trying to make a David Lynch movie. He's trying to top himself, and as a result, the picture feels more like the work of a Lynch imitator than the genuine item. It's like one of those episodes of "Twin Peaks" that Lynch didn't direct -- the ones that had everything except the master's transforming touch.

What Lynch seems to have been going for is a sort of white-trash variation on "The Wizard of Oz" -- one that's been left out in the sun to rot and fester and run lousy with maggots. But there are other echoes and allusions as well. Sailor's snakeskin jacket is straight out of Tennessee Williams, and Cage's performance is pure "Jailhouse Rock."

As Sailor, who, as his attorney kept telling the parole board, grew up without much "parental guidance," Cage enters into a wild parody of the limp-shouldered early Elvis, speaking his lines with a mumbled-low, " 'scuse me, ma'am" accent. He wedges the King's later Vegas moves in there too, thrusting and kick-boxing against invisible opponents, and even breaking into song (he does nifty renditions of "Love Me" and "Love Me Tender").

This is amyl nitrite acting -- the Method on poppers -- and Cage isn't the only one who seems to be jubilantly out of his head. Dern squirms and arches her back in her leather halter tops as if she can't stop her veins from itching. Dern's inspiration seems to have been Marilyn Monroe, and in her scenes with Cage she's a sex-crazed, gyrating dervish. Dern cuts loose as Lula in a way that few actresses have ever attempted; she's passionately uninhibited and without a shred of vanity or self-protection. But her performance -- and Cage's -- work more as spectacle than as anything else. They dance the lurid edge, but their acting is so achingly mannered that after a while it begins to grate on your nerves.

The same goes for Ladd, who flexes her kitty cat talons and, at one point, smears her face with blood-red lipstick like a Kabuki Medea, and Willem Dafoe, who as Sailor's would-be killer is outfitted with a full set of rotting, stumpy choppers.

The thing about Lynch's characters is that they have so much energy; it's as if they'd been injected with a combination of B12 and rattlesnake juice. Members of Lynch's fast-growing stock company show up to play small but garishly vivid roles. Isabella Rossellini lounges in the doorway of a cinder block shack, her hair a palomino blond with coal-black roots, and Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer in "Twin Peaks") floats down at the picture's end as the Good Witch. Grace Zabriskie makes an appearance too, as a deranged assassin with a clubfoot, and W. Morgan Sheppard appears as someone named Mr. Reindeer, who perches on a toilet sipping tea while his mostly nude serving girl wags her fanny at him.

The couple's journey takes them through New Orleans and, finally, to a motel in a town in Texas called Big Tuna, at which point the movie starts to degenerate into bad Fellini, with cliched shots of horrors like nude fat women dancing in garter belts. All this circus peculiarity seems to have been slipped in merely for shock effect, or for a kind of queasy-making comedy. In either case, it's weirdness just for the sake of weirdness.

But nothing in "Wild at Heart" -- not Zabriskie's snarling profanities as she and her cohorts carry out their hit against Harry Dean Stanton (who's touchingly genuine as Ladd's sweet-natured lover), not Lynch's splatting close-up of Dafoe's shotgunned skull -- is as unnerving as it's meant to be, or as funny.

What "Wild at Heart" feels like is a kind of housecleaning -- a disjointed collection of images and odd snatches of ideas that the director couldn't make room for anyplace else. They have no context, and as a result, no power to thrill or disturb. And using the references to "The Wizard of Oz" to unify them is the most disastrous ploy of all.

The most peculiar thing about "Wild at Heart" is how perfunctory and joyless it seems. There's always been an urgency to Lynch's films; whatever he was saying, he needed badly to say it. Fire is the film's dominant motif -- Lula's father, it seems, doused himself with kerosene and set himself on fire, and Uncle Pooch (Marvin Kaplan), who raped her at 13, died in a fiery car crash -- and Lynch returns again and again to the mini-explosion of a lit match. But for all its torrid sex play and violence, fire is precisely what "Wild at Heart" lacks. Instead of being wild at heart, it's empty at heart.

"Wild at Heart" contains profanity, nudity, graphic violence and, well, you name it.

Copyright The Washington Post

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