Oct 28 2009

Wild at Heart

wild_at_heart_ver1Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each others’ reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible. This week we take on the bizarre Wild at Heart. It’s a film that may be one of David Lynch’s more straightforward, but for any other filmmaker is about as strange as they come.

Wild at Heart
Year: 1990
Directed by: David Lynch
Written by: David Lynch
Based on Novel by: Barry Gifford
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe
Genre: Crime

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

Let me open this review with a disclaimer. I have not had much experience with David Lynch. With most filmmakers this would not have a large effect on the viewing of a film, but from what I’ve read, Lynch is a particularly impenetrable filmmaker, and perhaps some more exposure to his work would help bring light to what he does. As for myself, my only previous experience with David Lynch is a viewing of The Straight Story (the furthest thing from a traditional David Lynch film) as a young thirteen year old and a morbid curiosity that has led me to read synopsis and comments about his other movies. Based on what I’d read, I was somewhat prepared for the bizarreness of Wild at Heart, but that doesn’t mean I’d end up liking it.

Wild at Heart is the story of Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern), two lovers who run off together and at the behest of Lula’s overbearing mother, are chased down by numerous dangerous and bizarre people. As they “follow the yellow brick road” they’re journey becomes stranger and stranger as they run into more hazardous and ugly events, people, and surroundings. Wizard of Oz references are abound as Lynch tries to grasp at what it might be like for two people who feel they don’t fit into the world to search for something they can call home.

This is a world filled with absurd characters and damaged people. The characters often stray into the realm of heavy caricature, as they say exactly what they mean and don’t provide much depth. Cage’s Sailor repeatedly says his snakeskin jacket is a “symbol of [his] individuality and belief in personal freedom,” intentionally hitting us over the head with his motivations and beliefs. Dern’s Lula similarly repeats her crooning over Sailor. And everyone else in the film is essentially monstrous at heart and wacky on the outside, or as Lula puts it, “This whole world is wild at heart and weird on top.” Lulu’s mother at one point covers herself in lipstick, either showing her need to reveal her insides on the outside by making her skin red as the muscles within her, or perhaps she’s just plain crazy. These eccentricities might be explained by damaging events in the childhoods of the characters, but only Sailor and Lulu get any sort of significant flashbacks explaining why they might act the way they do (for Lulu, it’s a rape by a family friend nicknamed “Uncle Pooch”). Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern do serviceable, if extremely over the top acting, and everyone else (particularly Willem Dafoe) just does their darndest to act as weird as humanly possible. Where this film really suffers is in not having a single likable character, and being populated almost entirely by completely wretched people. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, to grasp onto.

All this is not to say there’s no value here. David Lynch has a deck full of storytelling techniques that no one else has, and he plays them in ways that throw you completely off guard and simultaneously make you feel exactly the emotions he’s trying to make you feel. He uses strange sounds, off-kilter music queues and odd cuts to give you the same sense of unease that Lulu starts to feel so strongly in the latter half of the film. Not to mention his equally strange imagery. David Lynch also employs interesting use of memory in this film, as we see flash backs as short as a second spliced into a scene, often spurred by a sound or sensory feedback from one of the characters. Certain events are treated with a Rashoman angle, being shown in different ways from multiple perspectives. Having this type of hazy truth within the first fifteen minutes of the film makes the viewer untrusting of the narrative, even though it stays pretty straightforward for the remainder. There’s also lots of sex in this film, some might classify it as gratuitous but it does serve the characters of Sailor and Lula by making them the passionate, wild, energetic counterparts to a world that seems to be trying to lock them down the same way they lock down their own emotions.

My reaction to this movie was disgust and unease, and I think that’s probably what David Lynch was going for. But it made for a barely enjoyable experience. I did get from it though a morbid curiosity, a sense of bewilderment that I so rarely get when watching a movie that I had to just go with the ride. David Lynch is clearly a brilliant filmmaker in his own way; I just have to wonder if even he can make any sense of what’s going on in most of his movies.

Benn says:

How does one describe David Lynch’s love story, Wild at Heart? If Tennessee Williams had done two handfuls of coke while reading Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, then went on to write his own version while The Wizard of Oz was blaring on the television in the next room, this is what you’d get. If this confuses you in any way, well… that’s David Lynch for you.

Wild at Heart is a Southern Gothic ballad about two young lovers and their erotic, high-octane journey through the South. Of course, plotlines and story have always been more like macguffins for a director like Lynch, who prefers surreal images and events to a linear storyline. Sometimes this works for the better, and other times it works out for the worse. This time, it works for the better.

Lynch’s tale of love, lust and the Confederacy begins with an opening shot of a raging fire, and manages to keep that unfocused, yet magnificent energy throughout most of the film. Soon after, we are introduced to young lovers Lula (Laura Dern) and Sailor (Nicholas Cage) who, while leaving an upscale party, are accosted by a man wielding a switchblade. Hardcore metal music begins to play while Sailor begins to literally bash the would-be assailants head into the wall, the stairs, and finally the floor.

This sums up the first half of the film, which finds Lula and Sailor leaving North Carolina, their troubles, and Lula’s hysterical mama (Diane Ladd) behind them to dance, fight and have sex, all of which are done to metal music and shots of fire that fade in and out. The film acts as a road trip through the South, with the terrible twosome coming across a number of surreal events and grotesque characters played by a variety of David Lynch regulars, such as Sherlynn Fenn, Isabella Rossellini and Jack Nance.

In typical Lynch fashion, the world Sailor and Lula are running from is as surreal and eerie as it gets. Lynch’s South is a bleak and sweaty hellhole that resembles a fever dream, and the quirks that populate this world only add to the irksome delirium. There are people, who bark, paint their faces with lipstick, and talk in high-pitch chipmunk voices for no apparent reason. There are even sadomasochistic assassins and a trio of obese naked women thrown in the mix to add to the eyebrow raising ambiance that Lynch has become known for.

Much of the film’s energy comes from the relationship between Sailor and Lula, which is about as erotic as it can get. The heat these two actors generate combats that of the hellfire that is the outside world, and for a while, that chemistry really keeps the film going in high gear. As with all fires though, this one also dies down eventually, and two leads eventually fall in line with the rest of Lynch’s characters. Dern in particular is kept on the back burner for the last act of the film, and is never really given a chance to shine on her own. Cage, on the other hand, revels in his wild, manic outbursts that give the film a bit of flare every now and then until the end. It’s an absolute treat to see Cage with such unstable, quirky energy; for the last ten years, Cage seems to be choosing roles that require him to act bland and flat. Wild at Heart shows us that, if you withhold Cage’s Ritalin for a scene or two, he can be very entertaining and spastically charismatic to watch. Hopefully, THIS Nicholas Cage will come back in the near future.

When the fires between the film’s stars die down, we at least get a few characters that keep the film weird and kinetic. Diane Ladd (who is Laura Dern’s mother in real life) is among one of the strangest characters in the film as Lula’s over protective, shrill mother who is intent on seeing Sailor dead. Most of her scenes involve her in a full Southern belle get-up, usually getting drunk and having a nervous breakdown. Then another. Then another. There’s not much dynamic to the character, but Lynch knows just when to use her, and Ladd plays the character with wild-eyed perfection every time.

Willem Dafoe gives one of the creepier performances of his career as Bobby Peru, a filthy, perverted scumbag with the brownest, nubbiest teeth you have ever seen. Sliming his way into the latter half of the film, Dafoe gives the film a breath of fresh air at a time where everything slows down. Granted, Dafoe’s character is as sleazy and rancid as it comes, but he does it so well that he keeps the movie going whereas it would have run out of gas entirely.

It was by no accident that Lynch injected a handful of references to The Wizard of Oz in this film; in many ways, Lynch’s world is like the mythical Land of Oz. There are kooky characters, evil witches, bizarre attraction, and answers for those who keep to the road. Granted, Lynch’s Oz is more of a surreal nightmare than what we’re used to, but its awe inspring nonetheless. As grotesque as the world can get, there is something pure and earnest in Sailor and Lula’s relationship, and even after their antics and eroticism smolders there is a solid foundation underneath that makes the world a little less frightening. Wild at Heart might be too weird or rambunctious for some to handle, but those who keep riding alongside Sailor and Lula, for better or worse, are in for a hell of a ride.

Benn’s rebuttal:

I agree, once again, with James’ observations concerning David Lynch’s surreal, uber-weird brand of imagery and story telling. I do, however, feel differently about the film. I typically despise shock for shock’s sake, but Lynch has a story to tell and throws in a number of things so extreme that I find them entertaining, if not down right funny.

The main theme here is passion and purity in the face of hell, and I think Lynch does a decent job portraying this. Granted, the passion between Sailor and Lula fades in and out while the extreme weirdness surrounding them prevails, but when that romantic, erotic fire burns, it makes a big impression. Bottom line, something that grabs your attention in such a matter can’t be ignored, no matter how much you’d like it to.

James’ rebuttal:

I feel Benn overrates Nicolas Cage’s performance a bit. His energy is certainly something to behold but he never brings any true depth or likability to Sailor. Dern on the other hand, perhaps through a bit of increased backstory, comes across as an understandable character. While Benn claims she dissapears in the back stretch I completely disagree, noticing that as we reached the third act our perspective really begins to align with her as she becomes afraid of the world that we’ve been marveling in fear at this whole time.

As for the movie as a whole, it may very well be “too rambunctious” for me to handle, but my attachment to a film depends very much on the writing, particularly plot and character. David Lynch really dispenses with both here and that’s what frustrates me so.

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