Finding Love in Hell

How does David Lynch’s Wild at Heart look, 25 years later?
by Philip Matthews

Will it really be 25 years in May since David Lynch’s Wild at Heart won big at Cannes, nabbing no less than the Palme d’Or? Amazing but true, and yet the film that was briefly Lynch’s most feted, now seems to be his most forgotten. Even Dune has its fans, but Wild at Heart? That seems less loved. And yet, while we’re all waist-deep in Twin Peaks nostalgia, looking excitedly and maybe a little nervously towards its unlikely return in 2016, spare a thought for the Lynch film that was Twin Peaks’ exact contemporary. It could probably do with being rescued from history.

Yes, a case could be made that Wild at Heart should stay buried. The central duo of Sailor (pre-embarrassing Nicolas Cage) and Lula (reliable Lynch muse Laura Dern) are a cartoon of a teenage Elvis and a teenage Marilyn on a road trip through a hellish deep south, from “somewhere near the border between North and South Carolina” to New Orleans and on to a small nowhere town in Texas that is so horrific you pray it’s fictional, which it is. The violence is the closest Lynch ever got to anticipating Tarantino-like glibness (Lynch fan David Foster Wallace wrote that “the violence comes off less as sick than as empty, a stream of stylised gestures”), the sexualised tone in the first half is forced and unconvincing and Lynch’s use of The Wizard of Oz as a frame is clumsy. You could go mad trying to work out the precise links between the endless cast of bad guys and women set in motion by Lula’s possessive and crazy mother, played by Dern’s own mother, Diane Ladd.

Some of these villains are memorable: Willem Dafoe with rotted teeth and a John Waters moustache as the incredible creep Bobby Peru; an incongruously gentle Harry Dean Stanton as private detective Johnnie Farragut; and Isabella Rossellini with a blonde wig delivering an amazing reading of the line, “You are one big stupid asshole,” at the hapless Sailor. Which he is, of course. There is a clear sense of lurid evil but not much of a sense of how this plot operates – while in the foreground, Lula and Sailor, driving west in their 50s convertible, have nothing much to say to each other. When the film takes a more serious turn one hour in, you really appreciate it. There is only so much of their cigarettes and gum fetishism you can take.

Lynch described it as “a really modern romance in a violent world – a picture about finding love in hell”. The source was Barry Gifford’s book Wild at Heart: the Story of Sailor and Lula, with a strong influence from Sidney Lumet’s 1959 film The Fugitive Kind, which means that Cage is kind of doing a Marlon Brando by way of Elvis. In his essay “David Lynch Loses His Head”, David Foster Wallace unpicks some other connections. The Fugitive Kind was an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play Orpheus Descending, which happened to star Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd when it played New York. There are never coincidences in the Lynch world, just dark and inscrutable schemes. That Williams atmosphere – a heavy air of sex, southern women driven crazy, even a thing about snakeskin – persists into the Lynch film.

Sources aside, the most interesting parts of Wild at Heart now are the parts that Lynch brought to it, almost as a cross-over from Twin Peaks (he had just wrapped season one), and they make the film richer if you’ve recently been re-watching or even just thinking about Twin Peaks and the prequel that everyone said was worse than the series, but was actually better: Fire Walk With Me.

Laura Dern and Isabella Rossellini were carried over from Blue Velvet – although both are in strikingly different roles – but three smaller parts were introduced by Lynch for actors he had just worked with on Twin Peaks. Jack Nance was Henry in Eraserhead of course, but he was also the mill owner in Twin Peaks and he is in Wild at Heart as one of the hideous residents of Big Tuna, Texas, where he has just a couple of lines of brilliant Lynch gibberish about Toto from The Wizard of Oz. Given Lula’s obsession, it gets under her skin like a mind reading.

More memorably, Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks’ Audrey) is in an eerie scene as a woman who stumbles out of a car crash that has just killed two men. Blood is pouring from her head, she is dazed and making no sense, the desert beyond the road is impossibly dark and the road itself is only partially illuminated by headlights. “I’ve got sticky stuff in my hair,” she says, meaning her own blood, before she quietly dies. The car crash is a turning point in the film, marking a tonal shift. The mood becomes pessimistic and Dern’s mask-like facial expression shifts from ecstatic or orgasmic to a horrified grimace. “I just hope seeing that girl die didn’t jinx us,” Lula says, knowing it already has.

The image of a dazed, dark-haired woman emerging from a car crash at night was so striking that Lynch used it again a decade later, in Mulholland Drive. But there is also a variation on it in what is usually (and mistakenly) taken as the least Lynchian project of the lot, the G-rated Disney film The Straight Story. The moment comes when Alvin Straight, on his ride-on lawnmower, encounters a hysterical woman who wonders why she keeps hitting deer that she leaves dead on the road. That scenario was apparently borrowed from actual truth. But then again car scenes like these, and car terror in general, are a frequent theme for Lynch – even in his songs.

The lines between Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks and the rest of the Lynch world blurred further in a one-off musical piece, Industrial Symphony No 1: The Dream of the Broken-hearted, performed in 1989 and released on video a year later. It opens with a phone call between an alternate Sailor and Lula, played again by Cage and Dern. He’s dumping her. She cries as only Dern can (Lynch was really big on crying at this point). The rest of it floats in the endless, ambient melancholy of Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti’s productions for Julee Cruise – those soft songs about deep anguish that were like aural wallpaper in the early 90s. Watching the show is like being inside Lynch’s brain at that moment, when a lot was fermenting.

The third Twin Peaks actor to appear in Wild at Heart was Sheryl Lee, Twin Peaks’ good-looking corpse, Laura Palmer. Her part as Wild at Heart’s Good Witch might seem like a ludicrously literal conclusion to the obsessive Wizard of Oz theme, but in hindsight it looks ahead to the last time we see Laura Palmer alive, which is at the very end of 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. It always seemed clear that Lynch had complicated, tender feelings for the character of Laura Palmer (“radiant on the surface but dying inside”), which is why he took on the near impossible task of fictionalising her last week and making her a sympathetic protagonist rather than just the coke-addict cheerleader that the TV series showed us. Anyway, at the end of Fire Walk With Me there is an almost religious moment in which Laura dies and ascends to some other place, looking spectral, redeemed and even blissful. Call it the beatification of Laura Palmer. Lynch wanted to give her a happy ending, after everything. So when the Good Witch in Wild at Heart says “Don’t turn away from love” to Sailor and Lula, it is an absurd, saccharine ending that points to the genuinely moving conclusion of Fire Walk With Me.

What was Twin Peaks really about? It was about the organised sexual abuse of young women by men in power, which was what Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, Blue Velvet and Inland Empire were also about, to differing degrees. Beneath the beloved coffee-and-pie quirkiness of the series there was an endless horror, explored more deeply and uncompromisingly in Fire Walk With Me. I think that the intense dread of Fire Walk With Me is what turned so many off, and not just the dread of moving towards a murder that is inevitable but also the dread of what the story explores. The sense of an evil father sexually abusing his daughter becomes horrific in the film, even when told through the supernatural device of Killer Bob. “That’s what it was all about – the loneliness, shame, guilt, confusion and devastation of the victim of incest,” Lynch told Chris Rodley in the interview book Lynch on Lynch. “It also dealt with the torment of the father – the war in him.”

Despite the poor critical reception, Fire Walk With Me even seems to have developed a cult following among young women who have been through the same kinds of traumatic experiences, as Rodley wrote in the introduction to the revised edition of Lynch on Lynch, published in 2005:

“After the release of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lynch received many letters from young girls who had been abused by their fathers. They were puzzled as to how he could have known exactly what it was like. Despite the fact that the perpetration of both incest and filicide was represented in the ‘abstract’ form of Killer Bob, it was recognised as faithful to the subjective experience.”

But the sexual abuse of a teenage girl is actually what Wild at Heart is about as well, despite the superficial exterior and the post-modern cartoonishness. It’s easy to forget – I know I did, until I re-watched it recently after re-watching Fire Walk With Me – that Lula was raped at the age of 13 by a man named Uncle Pooch, who was not an uncle of course but a “business partner” of her dad. Her mother learns of it and next thing we know, Uncle Pooch has a fatal car accident. (Dern plays the 13-year-old in flashbacks.) Lula’s mother is crazy and scheming but also intensely protective, and she knows what kind of man Cage’s Sailor might be, which means that there is a possible reading of Wild at Heart in which Lula’s nymphomania is a traumatic response. That puts us right back in Tennessee Williams country. The only reasonable way to understand what otherwise seem like bipolar reactions from Lula – either intense excitement or deep sorrow and fear – is to see both as an effect of the abuse. Suddenly, Dern’s acting stops being cartoonish and makes a horrible sense. The Wizard of Oz theme that comes to surround them is her consoling delusion, which is why it seems so terrifying when Jack Nance briefly taps into it.

What about Nicolas Cage’s Sailor, though? One thing is important: he is a singer. In Lynch’s world that often means a ventriloquist, someone who is manipulated from somewhere offstage or someone not to be trusted or taken at face value. Think of Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet, miming to Roy Orbison, or think of Rebekah Del Rio in Mulholland Drive, miming to a different Roy Orbison song, this time in Spanish, but miming to her own voice, which is more disturbing still, or even the miming Lady in the Radiator in Eraserhead. Sailor performs two Elvis songs to Lula at key moments in Wild at Heart, and he does them as himself. There is nothing mysterious or supernatural about it, no switch of personalities, nor the pain of Isabella Rossellini singing as Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet. When people sing or speak in the voices of others, or with voices that come from elsewhere, it is a metaphor for possession. They are no longer themselves. But nothing ever possesses Sailor. Perhaps because he is played by Cage, he is always, boringly, himself: dim, horny, violent, deranged and uncharismatic. Just a big stupid asshole. Whether 25 years ago or now, Nicolas Cage is the problem with Wild at Heart. He’s wild on top, maybe, but he’s never weird at heart.