Wild at Heart

Wild at Heart ★★★½

"This whole world's wild at heart and weird on top." ~ Lula Fortune

While watching the theatrical trailer, I started to get excited about this film. Not because it's directed by the great David Lynch. Not because young Laura Dern looks really hot. Certainly not because Nicolas Cage wears one of the coolest snakeskin jackets ever (and somebody wants him dead). No. The simple reason is Chris Isaak singing Wicked Game. What an all-time great song for a movie!!!

That particular bit of background sound doesn't come up till about 54 minutes in, but sure enough, this entire film is filled with great music. There are instrumentals like Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" and Duke Ellington's "First Movement," the Symphony Orchestra of the National Philharmonic, Warsaw playing Krzysztof Penderecki's eerie "Kosmogonia" and pop hits like "Baby Please Don't Go" performed by Them, as well as three tunes by Isaak. There's even Cage singing "Love Me Tender" Elvis-style.

Apart from the solid soundtrack, there's the usual Lynchian touch to adapting Barry Gifford's novel entitled "Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula." Starting out in the Carolinas, Cage plays Sailor Ripley, a former driver for crime boss Marcello Santos (J.E. Freeman). Sailor is head-over-heels in love with 20-year-old Lula Fortune (Dern), but her mother, the wealthy widow Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd), tries to have him killed by a switchblade-wielding punk called Bob Ray Lemon (Gregg Dandridge) because a) she's over-protective of her baby girl, b) she gets pissed off when Sailor rejects mama's attempt at seduction, and c) something else we'll learn later.

Defending himself, Sailor kills Bobby Ray and ends up serving nearly two years in the Pee Dee Correctional Institution. Lula is waiting for him when he gets out and they run off together, dancing, smoking and screwing on a road trip that takes them first to New Orleans and then into Texas on their way to California. Meanwhile, Marietta gets her sometime lover, a private detective named Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), to track them down and bring Lula back. But then she has second thoughts and contacts Marcello, who for his own reasons would like to see Sailor dead and (to Marietta's chagrin) Farragut, too.

Along the way, we get to meet through flashbacks, scene shifts and reminisces a menagerie of odd characters. They include: Lula's missing cousin Dell (Crispin Glover), who sees aliens with black gloves everywhere and wants every day to be Christmas; Marcello's accomplice Mr. Reindeer (William Morgan Sheppard), who lives in a mansion populated with half-naked women; and the hit man Reggie (Calvin Lockhart), who works for Mr. Reindeer and has a gimpy, crazy-ass moll named Juana Durango (Grace Zabriskie) to assist him. We also learn that two of Lula's family died in fires: her father via alleged self-immolation and her Uncle Pooch in a supposedly accidental auto crash.

At a motel in the tiny town of Big Tuna, Texas, Lynch goes overboard on his weird cameo casting. He brings in Jack Nance as a whacked-out "rocket scientist" called 00 Spool, John Lurie as local resident Sparky wearing a confederate flag cap, Frank Collison as redneck night manager Timmy Thompson, and a trio of morbidly obese naked ladies acting in a porno production being filmed in one of the rooms. This is when Willem Dafoe shows up, too, as sleazeball Vietnam vet Bobby Peru, who tries to talk Sailor into an armed robbery in Lobo.

If you care to count the number of overt references to "The Wizard of Oz" in this picture, my guess is you will quickly lose track: wicked witch, crystal ball, yellow brick road, Toto, ruby slippers, over the rainbow, the wizard.... It borders on overkill. And fire is another heavily used element, especially matches struck like bombs going off pretty much whenever cigarettes are lit. It gets a bit much.

Ladd earned well-deserved Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actress. And Lynch won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for this film, although I don't think it's nearly as good as many of his other nominated films that didn't win. It's just a bit too cute in places and not nearly as quirky or enigmatic as his later work.

#29 of 100 in my Top 100 Directors Challenge

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