by Frank Olson
David Lynch’s aesthetic relies more on surreal imagery and dream logic than character building and narrative coherence, which leads some detractors to accuse his films of being arbitrarily thrown together. But Lynch’s best films are masterpieces of mood building, and their powerful atmospheres could have only been built with tremendous care and focus. Eraserhead’s power is largely derived from its consistent, sharply articulated aura of social anxiety, created by cinematography, performance, special effects, and a soundtrack all doing their part to make the viewer uncomfortable. Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive begin with fairly standard noir plot setups and become steadily darker and more mysterious as they progress, with the films’ creepy atmospheres gradually overtaking narrative concerns. These films don’t make a lot of sense on a rational level (and sometimes not even on an intellectual thematic level), but they work because they use Lynch’s nearly unparalleled mastery of the medium’s audio and visual tools to create concentrated doses of unsettling intensity.
Director: David Lynch
Producers: Steve Golin, Monty Montgomery, Sigurjohn Sighvatsson
Writers: David Lynch, Barry Gifford (book)
Cinematographer: Frederick Elmes
Editor: Duwayne Dunham
Music: Angelo Badalamenti
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe, J.E. Freeman, Crispin Glover, Diane Ladd, Calvin Lockhart, Isabella Rossellini, Harry Dean Stanton
Premiere: May 1990 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 17, 1990
US Distributor: The Samuel Goldwyn Company
Though Lynch’s art clearly relies heavily on instinct, his films’ elaborate presentations can’t simply be improvised, and doubtless require a great deal of pre- and post-production craft. One has the impression that Lynch was thinking of nothing but Blue Velvet when he was making it, for example, and that film clearly benefited from its creator’s obsessiveness. But the surprising commercial success of Blue Velvet proved to be a double-edged sword. After that film turned Lynch into an unlikely celebrity, the director enjoyed a brief period in which he had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. Unfortunately, Lynch’s fetishistic style requires his undivided attention. In 1989 and 1990 Lynch launched the influential ABC series Twin Peaks, helmed the theatrical production Industrial Symphony No. 1 (as well as supervising its eventual home video release), directed a number of TV ads for companies like Calvin Klein, and wrote and directed the feature film Wild at Heart. It was the period of Lynch’s greatest productivity but he was making the shallowest work of his career.
Twin Peaks is probably the most uneven project that Lynch has been involved with (perhaps inevitably, given the amount of content it required), but Wild at Heart is the messiest and least fully formed of his feature films. His adaptation of Dune is a notorious disaster, but it boasts an uncommon visual majesty for a blockbuster action film, and its failings can mostly be blamed on studio tinkering and an awkward match between director and source material. Wild at Heart is also an adaptation of a novel, but it was made at a time in Lynch’s career when he had the power to make each product his own. Indeed, the film is less a coherent vision than an outlet for its director to indulge whatever whims he couldn’t satisfy with his other simultaneously produced projects.
Wild at Heart has a slightly more conventional narrative than the average Lynch film, but author Barry Gifford’s tale of lovers on the run is mostly used as a framing device for what feels alternately like a greatest hits collection or an outtake reel of the director’s work. Frightened by the highly idiosyncratic lowlifes of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks? Wild at Heart offers a parade of seedy criminals with violent sexual perversions, from the stump-toothed Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) to the menacingly deformed torturer Juana Durango (Grace Zabriskie). Just don’t expect any of them to be half as convincing as Dennis Hopper’s genuinely terrifying Frank Booth from Blue Velvet. Hoping for the type of jarring imagery that only Lynch can provide? There are some compelling images throughout Wild at Heart, from the repeated extreme close-ups of smoldering cigarettes to a disorienting funhouse mirror effect that blurs the face of Nicolas Cage’s protagonist in a bar, but even these striking images seem like minor variations of things the director already showed us in Blue Velvet or that he’d develop more fully in Lost Highway. Lynch’s reliable cinematographer Frederick Elmes certainly knows how to frame and light a widescreen shot, but here the director mostly seems interested in putting that talent to use to capture random moments of graphic but relatively generic sadistic violence.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with bringing fetishized violence to cinemas, and Lynch has certainly proven capable of making this type of content work for him in other films. But the hyper-charged viscera and sexual humiliation seen throughout Wild at Heart is dispiriting because it really does seem arbitrarily strewn together. The film goes to great lengths to shock with its extreme content, but there’s no sense that the viewer is really supposed to take any of it seriously. A kindly private eye (Harry Dean Stanton) is given an elaborate, sexualized torture sequence before being dispatched, but his death is barely brought up later in the film, completely wasting the scene’s potential power.
The main narrative, following rockabilly lovers Sailor (Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) as they attempt to outrun the criminal forces working for Lula’s jealous mother (Diane Ladd), is so flimsy and ridiculous that there is no weight even to the events happening directly to the main characters. At one point Lula is nearly raped by Bobby Peru, but while this scene works reasonably well as an isolated moment (due mostly to the efforts of Dern and Dafoe), it has no impact whatsoever on the overall film, as Peru has already been established as a dangerous deviant and Lula never really reveals the incident to Sailor. This scene is emblematic of a troubling misogyny that is present throughout the entire film. A crime boss named Mr. Reindeer (W. Morgan Sheppard) seems to exist largely so that he can appear in some early scenes surrounded by topless women before disappearing from the second half of the film entirely. Lynch’s treatment of female characters in other projects has often seemed dubious, but there has usually been something to redeem it, whether the film is explicitly set inside a deranged male psyche (as in Lost Highway), or whether his simplistic “good blonde girl vs. bad brunette whore” dichotomy is being mutated into unrecognizable shapes (as in Mulholland Drive). The women in Wild at Heart are all either treated as shrill, castrating harpies or as easily aroused hookers. Even Lula isn’t safe from this treatment, and while Dern admirably throws herself into the role, Lynch’s script and uncharacteristically manic direction don’t allow her to come off as anything other than a cartoon bimbo.
The female characters certainly aren’t portrayed in a flattering light in Wild at Heart, but then again no one of either gender feels like much more than a grotesque caricature, which is a shame considering the talent assembled in the cast. Talented performers like Crispin Glover, J.E. Freeman, John Lurie, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Jack Nance all pop up at one point or another in the film, but these glorified cameos don’t allow them to do much but show up and act weird for a few minutes. The character of Sailor gives Cage plenty of room to act crazy, but aside from his repeated insistence that his snakeskin jacket “represents a symbol of individuality and [his] belief in personal freedom,” he’s never particularly funny in the film, and there are plenty of other options available for audiences wanting to watch Cage at his nuttiest.
Sailor is a diehard Elvis fan, and there are a few scenes in which he begins singing the rock legend’s songs, briefly transforming the film into a broad parody of his campy ‘50s musicals. The calculated insincerity of these moments is sadly emblematic of the film’s cynical outlook. In other films Lynch takes potentially absurd melodramatic moments and imbues them with genuine intense emotion, but here he seems content to wink at the audience with arbitrarily chosen nods to everything from The Wizard of Oz to Yojimbo. While Jean-Luc Godard could take these incompatible influences and use them to make provocative critical statements, and Quentin Tarantino could playfully transform their narrative conventions to make something that transcends mere homage, Lynch’s use of these touchstones seems like empty camp. Perhaps if Lynch hadn’t been dividing his attention between so many different simultaneously developed projects, he might have been able to give Wild at Heart his usual vitality rather than serving his audience an uncharacteristically lazy and dishonest piece of trash.