I know I saw Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me when it was released in the summer of 1992, but I don’t recall if I wrote a review of it. That task probably fell to my partner on the movie review radio show, leaving me to simply announce I hated it when it was my turn to pipe in. I was, however, charged with writing about Wild at Heart in the fall of 1990, early in our program’s run. It was a nerve-wracking assignment. I was still learning how to write reviews and here I had to grapple with one of the most challenging and acclaimed directors of the day. I can recognize the defense strategies in the review. I channeled the explanatory writing style of Siskel & Ebert & the Movies in the first half of the review (whenever I used the term “picture” as a synonym for “movie,” it was a telltale sign that I was leaning on the approach of the most famous film critics in the nation), and there’s my amateurish stab at a more academic, deep-dive analysis of a single scene in the piece’s latter portion. I stick by this review, even if I’d love to take a fresh crack at writing about Wild at Heart, to see where my current skill set take me in analyzing a film that I still consider to be one of Lynch’s stronger works.
Wild at Heart is the latest vision from the man who may be the most unique and bizarre filmmaker working today: David Lynch. Wild at Heart introduces us to Sailor (played by Nicolas Cage) and Lula (played by Laura Dern). Sailor is a former “manslaughterer” who has just been released from prison. He immediately hooks up with Lula, and the two of them decided to hit the road and get as far away from their old lives as they can.
They’re also escaping from Lula’s domineering mother (played by Laura Dern’s real-life mom, Diane Ladd). She would like nothing more than to see Sailor dead. So she sets a few killers on their trail as they journey across the country in their own warped version of a road picture.
From there, the film follows Sailor and Lula, introduces several strange characters that they run into on their trip, delves into their past, and works to let us understand the relationship that they have. At the same time, it follows Diane Ladd’s frightening manipulations and descent into madness.
The entire cast performs exceptionally well, but special notice must be given to Willem Dafoe, who plays Bobby Peru, “just like the country.” Peru is a killer who draws Sailor into some illicit business with plans to give him a nasty surprise. Dafoe makes Peru into a sly and dangerous individual. He’s one of the scariest villains to come across the screen in quite a while.
Even more impressive is Laura Dern as Lula, in an incredibly complex, wide-ranging performance. Dern taps into the character beautifully, making Lula fragile and naive, yet strong-willed and worldly all at the same time.
And, of course, there’s David Lynch, mixing lush images with hyper-violent and blatantly sexual world Sailor and Lula inhabit. It’s a masterful job that reaches an emotional peak in a scene in which Lula has taken the wheel of the car and is driving down the Southern highway trying to tune her radio to an acceptable station. She can only find news reports, all of which feature stories of child abuse, horrible deaths, and sexual assaults, or exactly the material that dominates modern headlines. Lula loses control until Sailor is able to find a station playing hard-edged music that borders on speed metal. Both Sailor and Lula are suddenly revived, finding new strength in the music that represents themselves and their world. It just goes to show that our world of fear and violence isn’t that far removed from the strange, frightening world that they call home. And that, no matter how scary their world may be, there’s a certain comfort there as well, and they wouldn’t want to be any other place.
Wild at Heart ultimately succeeds at its most challenging and interesting task. It makes us care about Sailor and Lula and believes in the love that they have. It is most definitely an impressive triumph.
3 and 1/2 stars, out of 4.