Portions of this review first appeared in our coverage of the UK import Blu-ray edition of 'Wild at Heart'.
"The way your head works is God's own private mystery."
Throughout his career, David Lynch has frequently been accused of making movies that are "weird for weird's sake." For the most part, this is a false complaint. In the majority of his films, at least in all of the good ones, even the strangest, most surreal elements serve some point or purpose to the greater whole. Perhaps Lynch's radical shifts in tone may be unconventional, or his use of symbolism may seem impenetrable, but the work usually conveys a sense that it has some meaning buried within it that demands to be interpreted by each viewer. No artist is infallible, however. At the peak of his career, Lynch delivered one of his weakest efforts – the messy, shallow, needlessly violent and mostly pointless 'Wild at Heart'.
By the summer of 1990, David Lynch was on top of the world. His last movie, the controversial 'Blue Velvet', garnered the director an Academy Award nomination and made him a cause célèbre in film circles. That spring, the first season of his television series 'Twin Peaks' debuted to tremendous ratings success and near-universal critical acclaim. For this first time in his career, this idiosyncratic abstract artist, best known previously for making one of the biggest box office bombs of all time ('Dune'), was a bona fide pop culture icon. The name "David Lynch" became a brand associated with all things quirky and strange and cool. Lynch had the power to bring outsider art into the mainstream consciousness, and people loved him for it.
In a burst of creative energy, Lynch left the second season of his TV show in the hands of his collaborators and went off to make another movie. The source of his inspiration was a slim novella called 'Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor & Lula' by author Barry Gifford, which chronicles the adventures of two white trash kids on a road trip across the seedier parts of the American South as they attempt to escape their checkered pasts and the controlling grasp of the girl's domineering mother. The book is very short and thinly-sketched. It can practically be read in less time than it takes to watch the movie. Lynch chose to use this rough framework as a dumping ground for all manner of digressions, random images and snippets of story ideas that had been percolating in his head with no other outlet. The final product has as much or more David Lynch in it than it does Barry Gifford.
As completed, the film version of 'Wild at Heart' is part road movie, part musical and part crime thriller, all flavored with Lynch's trademark surreal humor. It opens on a scene of almost stomach-churning racism as our presumptive hero Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) savagely beats a black man to death by repeatedly smashing his skull against the wall and floor until there's little left of it but a bloody, squishy pulp. Sailor, you see, is desperately, passionately in love with oversexed bimbo Lula Fortune (Laura Dern). This presents a problem when Lula's psycho-bitch mother Marietta Fortune (Dern's real-life mother Diane Ladd), who isn't so keen on these two kids shacking up together, hires a series of exceedingly eccentric hit men (including said black fella) to track them down, bump off Sailor, and bring Lula back home.
This skeleton of a plot acts as an excuse to string together a series of individual sketches and non sequiturs that seemingly have no relation to one another and serve no narrative purpose. The movie features a mob boss surrounded by topless maids, a crazy Cajun hit-woman with her leg in a brace, flashbacks within flashbacks that directly contradict one another, and countless overbearing references to 'The Wizard of Oz', Hollywood musicals and Elvis.
'Wild at Heart' is an indulgent film, made by an artist eager to live up to his reputation for "weird" material. It certainly fits that description, but almost desperately so, by piling on stranger and stranger affectations until it implodes under its own weight. Nicolas Cage spends the whole movie doing an Elvis drawl, while Diane Ladd pulls a full-bore Wicked Witch of the West routine, her face covered in bright red lipstick as she stares seethingly into the camera. Crispin Glover shows up for two minutes to stick cockroaches in his underwear and obsessively make sandwiches in the middle of the night. Freddie Jones from Lynch's 'The Elephant Man' pops in for a moment to rant about pigeons in a squeaky helium voice. There isn't a scene in the whole film without something perversely strange going on in the background, in the foreground and all around the edges, and little of it adds up to anything of substance. By the time a gaggle of obese naked women prance around in the back of a scene and another character informs Sailor that, "Them are makin' a pornographic movie, Texas style!", it's about the least odd thing that has happened up to that point. Sailor and Lula are basically the only connective tissue between one section of the film and the next, and their presence is almost incidental most of the time.
With that said, 'Wild at Heart' has some saving graces. The film is boldly stylized with vivid colors, striking imagery and beautifully symmetrical widescreen composition. The movie may be a case of style over substance, but what fantastic style it is. Many directors over the years have tried to imitate Lynch, but none has ever captured the real flavor of the original. A David Lynch film is distinctively, uniquely his own. 'Wild at Heart' drips mood and atmosphere, and Lynch finds abstract beauty in the grotesque. He's a filmmaker who can bring the textures of smoke, lipstick, flies on vomit or nylon stretched over a human face to memorable life.
'Wild at Heart' also contains several bravura set-pieces that, outside the context of this movie, are among the best that Lynch has ever directed. Sherilyn Fenn's brief appearance as a car crash victim is wrenchingly powerful, and brings the film some much-needed emotional resonance. As the repugnant Bobby Peru, Willem Dafoe makes one of the sleaziest villains to ever appear on screen. His attempted seduction of Lula is a tour de force of dark eroticism, both terrifying and alluring. By the time the story ambles lackadaisically into its payroll robbery plot in the second half, the movie picks up enough steam to build to a satisfying shootout finale complete with a visual reference to Kurosawa's 'Yojimbo'.
Even if, on the whole, 'Wild at Heart' doesn't amount to much more than a grab-bag of intriguing bits and pieces forced together with little coherent structure or purpose, it burns with real passion and a playful sense that the director had a lot of fun making it. Some viewers will respond to this more than others. That's perhaps the only explanation I can fathom for how the movie managed to win the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival that year.
'Wild at Heart' makes its domestic debut on the Blu-ray format as 3,000-copy Limited Edition from Twilight Time, under license from MGM. The film had previously been released on Blu-ray in Europe, where it's distributed by Universal Studios Home Entertainment. (See my review of the 2012 UK import edition here.)
To date, all Blu-ray editions of the film (both foreign and domestic) contain only the American theatrical cut of 'Wild at Heart', for which David Lynch added a smoke effect to obscure a gory death scene in order to secure an R rating from the MPAA. Back in 1990, international theatrical prints contained a slightly more graphic version of the scene without the smoke. Having actually seen both, I have to say that the smoky version is far more effective. Without it, the gore looks fake and unconvincing. The smoke helps to sell the effect, and also ties in thematically with the many recurring images of smoke, cigarettes and fire throughout the film. In my opinion, the American theatrical cut is the superior version of the movie.
The European Blu-ray editions of 'Wild at Heart' released by Universal left much to be desired. I held out some measure of hope that Twilight Time's disc might feature a new, or at least different, video transfer. Unfortunately, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer appears to be sourced from the same dated master that Universal used. The 2.35:1 image suffers from recurring, nearly constant speckles and dirt on the film elements, as well as a big scratch at time code 1:56:02. In my review of the UK import copy, I described these as "minor." However, I'm viewing on a larger screen now, and they bothered me a lot more this time.
For the most part, the image is reasonably sharp and detailed, aside from scenes where the movie's photography has obvious focus issues. (That happens a fair amount, sadly.) In its favor, this appears to be a pretty straightforward film scan without much overt Digital Noise Reduction or artificial sharpening. Although some edge halos are very pronounced in an early scene, they go away shortly afterward. On the other hand, the film is also very grainy, and the grain has not been well digitized. It comes across with a noisy, electronic texture and looks pixilated when paused.
Colors are vibrant, if a little oversaturated. Flesh tones look pasty in some scenes. My colleague Tyler Foster at DVDTalk noted that he felt the UK Blu-ray had a faint yellow tint that was removed or corrected here. This is not something I noticed on my own. In fact, I was only able to find an extremely subtle, ultimately negligible difference between the two discs when directly comparing screencaps, and only in a few scenes.
Like the European copies, Twilight Time's disc has satisfying contrast in brightly-lit daytime scenes, but dark nighttime scenes have elevated, washed-out black levels and are swamped in ugly noise. This mars the movie's best sequence, the car crash aftermath with Sherilyn Fenn.
If there's one area where the Twilight Time Blu-ray shines, it has substantially better audio than the European imports from Universal. Early copies in the UK and France had 5.1 tracks with an authoring error that caused dialogue to come from all three front channels simultaneously, which created an echo and hollowness in the soundstage. A later reissue in the UK only had English 2.0 audio. While that may have fixed the dialogue problem, it had very weak dynamic range.
Twilight Time offers the movie's English-language soundtrack in both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 formats. Dialogue is properly centered in both. Additionally, the 5.1 track has much greater dynamic range than anything heard on any of the imports. When the opening titles fly toward the screen, they slam to a stop with a very satisfying bass thunk. The track has terrific clarity of subtle sound effects (such as the creak of Sailor's snakeskin jacket) and ambient noises. Music has very pleasing breadth and airiness.
With that said, this isn't an action movie, and never threatens to shake your house's foundation. Also, keep in mind that David Lynch famously has an aversion to surround sound. Even the 5.1 track has extremely limited surround activity. To be honest, I previously believed that this was a 3.1 track with the surround channels turned off entirely. However, if I stand with my ear right next to a surround speaker, I can hear something. It's subtle, and very low in volume, but technically the rear channels do get used. As far as that goes, you won't hear much difference between the 5.1 and 2.0 options. Of the two, I recommend the 5.1 for its better dynamic range.
The majority of bonus features on the Twilight Time Blu-ray are recycled from MGM's 2004 DVD release of the film.
'Wild at Heart' may be one of my least favorite of David Lynch's films, but the director's spark is still buried somewhere within its sloppy, chaotic mess. I continually find myself returning to give it another chance, which is a lot more benefit than I might give Lynch's last film, the disastrous 'Inland Empire'.
The domestic Blu-ray release from Twilight Time has the same problematic video transfer previously seen on European import copies of the movie, but a much better 5.1 soundtrack. Fans of the movie or the director will find it worth the investment for the audio. Like all Twilight Time discs, this is a limited edition of only 3,000 copies.