Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) are young lovers on the run from her crazed and over-protective mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd). Sailor has jumped parole after serving time for manslaughter and takes off with Lula for sunny California. This doesn’t sit too well with Lula’s mom who sends her boyfriend, private investigator Johnny Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), and, unbeknownst to him, her lover, ruthless gangster Marcellos Santos (J.E. Freeman) on the trail of the young lovers.
As he would do with the opening scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Lynch kicks things off with a shockingly brutal act of violence that establishes a confrontational tone – this is a violent world where Sailor is prepared to kill a man with his bare hands in order to protect the woman he loves. The first image is the striking of a match followed by images of flames announcing the color scheme that would be prevalent throughout the film. This is continued in the love scenes between Sailor and Lula that are bathed in red, yellow and orange – all representing their burning love for each other. During the course of the film there are countless shots of cigarettes being lit, matches being struck, an exploding car, and a house on fire. This film is vibrantly alive and energized more than anything Lynch had done before or has done since.
In the summer of 1989, Lynch had finished up the pilot for Twin Peaks and tried to rescue two of his projects – Ronnie Rocket and One Saliva Bubble – that were owned by Dino de Laurentiis when his company went bankrupt. Independent production company Propaganda Films commissioned Lynch to develop an updated noir screenplay based on a 1940s crime novel while a filmmaking friend of his by the name of Monty Montgomery optioned Barry Gifford’s book, Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula in pre-published galley form. Montgomery gave him Gifford’s book and asked Lynch if he would executive produce a film adaptation that he would direct. Lynch remembers telling him, “That’s great Monty, but what if I read it and fall in love with it and want to do it myself?” And this is exactly what happened as Lynch recalls, “It was just exactly the right thing at the right time. The book and the violence in America merged in my mind and many different things happened.” Lynch was drawn to what he saw as “a really modern romance in a violent world – a picture about finding love in hell.” He was also attracted to “a certain amount of fear in the picture, as well as things to dream about. So it seems truthful in some way.”
Once Lynch got the okay from Propaganda to switch projects, he wrote a draft in a week. Within four months, he began filming with a budget of $10 million. Lynch did not like the ending in Gifford’s book where Sailor and Lula split up for good. For Lynch, “it honestly didn’t seem real, considering the way they felt about each other. It didn’t seem one bit real! It had a certain coolness, but I couldn’t see it.” Samuel Goldwyn, who ended up distributing the film, read an early draft of the screenplay and didn’t like Gifford’s ending either so Lynch changed it.
However, the director was worried that this change made the film too commercial, “much more commercial to make a happy ending yet, if I had not changed it, so that people wouldn’t say I was trying to be commercial, I would have been untrue to what the material was saying.”
When Lynch read Gifford's novel, he immediately wanted Nicolas Cage to play Sailor and Laura Dern to play Lula. The actor said that he was "always attracted to those passionate, almost unbridled romantic characters, and Sailor had that more than any other role I'd played.” In Dern’s case, this was the first opportunity she had "to play not only a very sexual person, but also someone who also was, in her own way, incredibly comfortable with herself.” During rehearsals, Lynch talked about Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe with Cage and Dern. Around this time, Lynch bought a copy of Elvis' Golden Hits and, after listening to it, called Cage and told him that he had to sing two songs, "Love Me" and "Love Me Tender." The actor, a big Elvis fan, agreed and recorded each song so that he could lip-sync to them on the set.
Before filming started, Lynch suggested that Dern and Cage go on a weekend road trip to Las Vegas in order to bond. Dern remembers, “We agreed that Sailor and Lula needed to be one person, one character, and we would each share it. I got the sexual, wild, Marilyn, gum-chewing fantasy, female side; Nick’s got the snakeskin, Elvis, raw, combustible, masculine side.”
Lynch’s two leads are also on the same page in this respect, especially Cage who affects an Elvis Presley-like drawl and sings two songs made famous by the King. Sailor, like many of the characters in this film, is larger than life with his snakeskin jacket credo, his unorthodox style of dancing (involving martial arts kicks and punches) and his habit of singing Elvis songs to Lula in public. There is a show-stopping moment where he instructs Powermad, a speed metal band, to back him on a note perfect rendition of “Love Me” while the women in the audience scream in adoration in surreal slow motion like something out of a dream. Cage plays Sailor as an instantly iconic figure, where pointing an accusing finger at Marietta is akin to a declaration of war.
Dern plays Lula to gum-chewing perfection, delivering a completely uninhibited performance as Lula. She exudes a captivating sensuality in the way she carries herself and makes a line like, “You got me hotter’n Georgia asphalt,” sound like an enticing come-on. Lula is a young woman full of energy and vitality as is evident in the scene where she and Sailor dance to the music of Powermad. There is genuine chemistry and heat between her and Cage — rather appropriate for a film dominated by images of fire. However, as the film progresses and the tone becomes darker, Lula’s optimism is chipped away and this culminates in a terrifying scene where Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) verbally rapes her in a way that echoes a similar scene in Blue Velvet (1986).
Amidst all of this madness and brutality is a touching tenderness between Sailor and Lula, like the way he softly kisses her after a passionate bout of sex, or a moment where he places her hand over his heart without a word. Nothing needs to be said between them because they understand each other intimately. As she tells him at one point, “You mark me the deepest.” And Lynch takes the time to show a series of conversations between Sailor and Lula where they talk about their respective childhoods (“I didn’t have much parental guidance.” Sailor tells her, not surprisingly.), their dreams, random thoughts, and past relationships. This allows us to get to know and care about them while also taking the occasional breather from all of the weirdness that Lynch throws our way.
Diane Ladd is fantastic as the wicked witch cum mother-from-hell, gleefully chewing up the scenery as evident even in the way she vigorously drinks from her martini glass and the way she delivers threats to Sailor with venomous gusto. Also prevalent is Lynch’s trademark fascination with the dark underbelly of America as personified by the character of Bobby Peru, one of Lynch’s most disturbing psychopaths (right behind Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth). With his horrible teeth and all-black attire (to match his pitch black heart), Peru sets his sights on Sailor and Lula with the intention of killing the former and seducing the latter.
Lynch juxtaposes this darkness with his trademark absurdist humor in the guise of the various oddballs Sailor and Lula meet along the way, like the man at a bar (Freddie Jones) who talks about “pigeon-spread diseases” in a goofy, high-pitched, sped-up voice. Or, Lula’s wildly eccentric cousin, Jingle Dell (Crispin Glover in a memorably bizarre cameo), who believes aliens are after him, enjoys placing cockroaches in his underwear and exhibits odd, nocturnal behavior (“I’m making my lunch!”). There is also a memorable scene that introduces Bobby Peru and his friends, including Lynch regular, Jack Nance in a scene-stealing role as Boozy Spool, a dazed and confused rocket scientist who may have been sampling his own rocket fuel. He delivers a brilliantly surreal monologue that is amongst some of the best moments in any Lynch film and reminiscent of the joyride interlude at Ben’s in Blue Velvet.
Wild at Heart also features stunning cinematography by Frederick Elmes (who also worked with Lynch on Eraserhead and Blue Velvet). In particular, there is a scene where Lula and Sailor pull over to the side of the road as she is upset and disgusted with all of the terrible news that she’s heard on the radio. He finds Powermad on a station and they get out of the car and dance before embracing passionately. Lynch cuts to a long shot and pans away to a gorgeous shot of a sunset that captures the poetic beauty of this moment perfectly.
Wild at Heart is a film rich in emotion and feeling as everything is heightened to an operatic level. Surreal is an adjective always used to describe Lynch but he is also a very romantic filmmaker. There is the Douglas Sirkian melodrama of Blue Velvet, the emotional journey Alvin Straight takes in order to reconnect with his brother in The Straight Story (1999), and the town of Twin Peaks dealing with the grief over the death of Laura Palmer. Perhaps the most emotional scene in Wild at Heart is when Sailor and Lula drive along a deserted stretch of highway late and night and while an instrumental version of “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak plays on the soundtrack, he tells her about how he knew her dead father. The reaction she gives is so heartbreaking, like a daughter who realizes that her father isn’t perfect.
Sailor, in some ways, is a father figure to her. He makes her feel protected and she even comments on how some of his physical features resemble her father’s. This scene represents the first seed of doubt in their relationship. It is the first step off the yellow brick road and this is reinforced by Lula’s nightmarish vision of her mother as the Wicked Witch. And then they come across a horrible car accident and find one person still alive – a woman (Sherilyn Fenn) walking around in shock from a head wound. She eventually dies in Sailor and Lula’s arms. It is a tragic moment accentuated beautifully by Angelo Badalamenti’s moving score. This scene is a crucial turning point in the film as it descends into much darker territory as Sailor and Lula make a series of bad decisions, most notably getting involved with Bobby Peru.
Lynch loved The Wizard of Oz and put a lot of references to it in his own film. Boozy Spool talks about his dog, comparing it to Dorothy’s pooch Toto; Marietta’s picture disappears at the end of the film just like the Wicked Witch; there’s Lula’s vision of her mother as the Wicked Witch of the East; Sailor has a vision of the Good Witch (Sheryl Lee) at the end of the film, who convinces him not give up on love; and Lula clicking the heels of her shoes together after the terrifying encounter with Bobby Peru.
Early test screenings for the film did not go well with the intense violence in some scenes being too much. Lynch estimated that between 100-120 people walked out. The scene in question was the torture and killing of Johnny Farragut. “I didn’t think I’d pushed it to the point where people would turn on the picture. But, looking back, I think it was pretty close. But that was part of what Wild at Heart was about: really insane and sick and twisted stuff going on.” Lynch decided not to edit anything from the film and at the second screening another one hundred people walked out during the same scene. Lynch remembers, "By then, I knew the scene was killing the film. So I cut it to the degree that it was powerful but didn´t send people running from the theatre."
The film was completed one day before its premiere at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival. Its first screening was in the 2,400-seat Grand Auditorium and afterwards it received "wild cheering" from the audience. Barry Gifford remembers that there was a prevailing mood among the media that hoped Lynch would fail. “All kinds of journalists were trying to cause controversy and have me say something like ‘This is nothing like the book’ or ‘He ruined my book.’ I think everybody from Time magazine to What’s On In London was disappointed when I said ‘This is fantastic. This is wonderful. It’s like a big, dark, musical comedy.’” When Jury President Bernardo Bertolucci announced Wild at Heart as the Palme d’Or winner at the awards ceremony, the boos almost drowned out the cheers with film critic Roger Ebert leading the vocal detractors
To say that Wild at Heart did not receive kind notices from critics is an understatement to say the least. Not surprisingly, leading the charge was Roger Ebert who wrote, "He is a good director, yes. If he ever goes ahead and makes a film about what's really on his mind, instead of hiding behind sophomoric humor and the cop-out of 'parody,' he may realize the early promise of his Eraserhead. But he likes the box office prizes that go along with his pop satires, so he makes dishonest movies like this one.” USA Today gave the film one-and-a-half stars out of four and said, "This attempt at a one-up also trumpets its weirdness, but this time the agenda seems forced." Time magazine’s Richard Combs wrote, “The result is a pile-up, of innocence, of evil, even of actual road accidents, without a context to give significance to the casualties or survivors.” Sight and Sound magazine’s Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, "Perhaps the major problem is that despite Cage and Dern's best efforts, Lynch is ultimately interested only in iconography, not characters at all. When it comes to images of evil, corruption, derangement, raw passion and mutilation (roughly in that order), Wild at Heart is a veritable cornucopia."
However, Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers wrote, "Starting with the outrageous and building from there, he ignites a slight love-on-the-run novel, creating a bonfire of a movie that confirms his reputation as the most exciting and innovative filmmaker of his generation." In her review for the Village Voice, Georgia Brown wrote that the film was “wispy and amorphous ... but it’s also formally beguiling and, in places, brilliant.”
Wild at Heart perfectly illustrates Lynch’s love-hate relationship with America. The film is filled with beautifully shot iconography of Americana, like big convertible automobiles from the ‘50s and rock ‘n’ roll music from the period. Sailor and Lula are loving (albeit tweaked) homages to Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. It is also something of an underrated film that is often ignored in favor of Lynch’s more well-known work, like Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive (2001). One can see the film’s influence in a film like True Romance (1993), with its Elvis-obsessed protagonist and his gum-chewing white trash girlfriend as they are pursued by psychotic gangsters, or Natural Born Killers (1994) with its white trash lovers on the run, or U-Turn (1997) with its town full of eccentric weirdos. But no one can pull this stuff off quite like Lynch and his film is a true original that deserves to be re-discovered and re-evaluated.