In a series of reviews and blog posts filed under the heading "Auteur Theory," I have made it a project to revisit the career of cult director David Lynch, rewatch his entire feature filmography in sequential order, and chart the progression of this iconoclastic artist through both his highs and lows.
"Auteur Theory" Article Index
"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.
As far as I'm aware, the North American rights to 'Wild at Heart' are still held by MGM, which has not yet demonstrated any interest in releasing the film on Blu-ray. Overseas, however, Universal Studios Home Entertainment holds the European distribution rights, and has already released Blu-ray editions in both the UK and France. In fact, the copy under review here marks the second Blu-ray release of 'Wild at Heart' in the UK. The first, from October of 2010, can still be ordered from Amazon UK at the time of this writing. While the video transfer of this new edition is a direct copy of that earlier movie-only disc, it offers new bonus features and makes some changes to the audio section, for both the better and worse. (More on that shortly.)
The newer 2012 Blu-ray can be purchased either separately or as part of a David Lynch box set that also includes new editions of 'Eraserhead', 'Dune', 'Blue Velvet', 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me' and 'Lost Highway'. Unfortunately, the handsome packaging of the box set is its greatest asset. Most of the Blu-rays in the box are compromised in one way or another, including this one.
The UK disc is locked to Region B playback and will require a compatible Blu-ray player to operate. The disc will not function in a standard American Blu-ray player without a region code modification. The bonus features on the disc are also encoded in PAL standard-def video.
The Blu-ray contains only the American theatrical cut of 'Wild at Heart'. Previously, the international theatrical cut of the film contained a slightly more graphic death scene for one character. In order to secure an R rating from the MPAA, David Lynch added a smoke effect to obscure the gore in the American version. While some fans may complain about "censorship," having actually seen both versions, 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.
When MGM released 'Wild at Heart' on DVD back in 2004, that disc sported a director-approved transfer. Based on the presence of minor dirt and specks in the same spots on the film elements, as well as a large vertical scratch at time code 1:56:25, Universal's Blu-ray edition appears to stem from that same source. However, the studio has electronically manipulated it to "correct" at least one perceived flaw, presumably without any involvement from David Lynch.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is highly erratic in quality. When it looks good (in brightly-lit scenes), it looks great. Aside from some focus issues inherent to the photography, the 2.35:1 image is sharp and nicely-detailed. Colors are sometimes a bit oversaturated, which can leave flesh tones looking a little pasty, but that was an issue with the Lynch-approved DVD as well. For the most part, the colors are pleasingly vivid.
Sadly, when the disc looks bad (in darker, grainy scenes), it looks horrible. No surprise, this happens to be where the Blu-ray differs from the DVD. For some reason, Universal has chosen to crank up the brightness in all dark and nighttime scenes. There was nothing wrong with the black levels or shadow detail on the DVD, so I'm at a loss for why someone thought that this was necessary. These scenes now have very elevated, washed out blacks and highly pronounced grain. Whether due to poor digitization or compression, that grain looks astoundingly bad. It pulses and sparkles, and has a very noisy electronic texture. It's a hideous eye sore, and the movie has a lot of scenes like this, including its best sequence, the car crash aftermath with Sherilyn Fenn.
Universal's previous UK Blu-ray from 2010 and the studio's recent French Blu-ray release are no better in this regard. They both stem from the same master with the same issue in dark scenes. An older French Blu-ray from BAC Video may have looked a little duller in bright scenes, but was much closer to the Lynch-approved DVD in dark scenes. Unfortunately, that disc was burdened by forced French subtitles, and is now long out of print anyway.
The audio on the 2012 Blu-ray is encoded in PCM 2.0 stereo format. The MGM DVD edition, and even Universal's own prior Blu-ray release, both had a 5.1 sound mix. (The earlier Blu-ray was authored in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format.) Before anyone gets too outraged about this, a few mitigating factors should be taken into consideration.
First, as I've mentioned in reviews of earlier David Lynch films, the director has developed a distaste for surround sound over the years. While the soundtrack on the Lynch-approved DVD of 'Wild at Heart' was technically encoded as a 5.1 signal, the back channels were completely silent throughout. The soundtrack was essentially a 3.1 mix, with all audio in either the front channels or the subwoofer. The stereo mix on the Blu-ray doesn't lose much in terms of envelopment or directionality.
Further, the 5.1 track on Universal's previous Blu-ray suffered an authoring error that caused dialogue to come from all three front channels. (The DVD did not have this flaw.) Even though this may have been barely noticeable in some scenes, others sounded hollow or echo-y. When decoded with Dolby ProLogic II processing, the new disc's stereo track properly centers dialogue and only spreads music or sound effects to the sides. In this respect, the stereo mix could be considered an improvement.
On the other hand, the 5.1 track on the earlier Blu-ray seemed to have more robust dynamic range. This may be due in part to the dedicated .1 subwoofer channel, and possibly also in part to the accidental duplication (and amplification) of sounds in the left and right speakers. Whatever the reason, whether intentional or not, the 5.1 track had more kick than this stereo mix, which sounds weaker in comparison. But, as I said, the dialogue problem is fixed. Pick your poison of choice.
The shame of this is that 'Wild at Heart', like all Lynch films, has a fascinating sound design. In this case, Lynch worked with Oscar winner Randy Thom ('The Right Stuff'). Their track features a great deal of throbbing music, interesting ambient noises and squishy sound effects.
Universal's prior UK Blu-ray from 2010 offered no bonus features. For the re-release, the studio has thrown in some of Lynch's short films that previously appeared on DVDs distributed through the director's web site.
'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'.
Unfortunately, the new UK Blu-ray is as much of a mixed bag as the movie. It looks good in daytime scenes, but terrible in nighttime scenes. The dialogue error from a previous Blu-ray is fixed, but only at the expense of downgrading the soundtrack to stereo. To date, there is no definitive version of this film on Blu-ray.