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.
Portions of this article that represent comparable content first appeared in my review of the UK import edition of 'Wild at Heart'.
"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.
Even though 'Wild at Heart' still awaits Blu-ray distribution in the United States, the film has been released twice already in France, once in 2008 by a studio called BAC Video and then later in 2010 by Universal Studios Home Entertainment. Both were issued under the movie's French release title 'Sailor & Lula' on the case packaging. (However, the movie's on-screen opening credits still reflect the original 'Wild at Heart' title.)
The Universal disc comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with slipcover, both of which feature a handsome close-up image of Sailor's lighter. Despite the lack of any region-coding indication on the artwork, the disc appears to be locked to Region B playback. I could not get it to function in my American PS3, and I had to manually switch my region-modified OPPO Blu-ray player to Region B in order to play the disc. The bonus features are also encoded in PAL standard-def video.
The older Blu-ray from BAC Video is region-free, but has uglier cover art and no bonus content. It's also burdened by forced French subtitles that cannot be disabled. Even if you want it, this disc is now out of print and difficult to import. Although Amazon France still has a listing for it, the Blu-ray is sold there by a third-party vendor that will not ship to the United States.
Both French Blu-rays contain only the American theatrical cut of 'Wild at Heart'. Previously, the international theatrical cut of the film featured 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.
Universal's French Blu-ray release of 'Wild at Heart' derives from the same source master that the studio would subsequently use for the UK Blu-ray edition in 2012, which I reviewed previously. Like that disc, the French copy looks great in brightly-lit scenes, where it sports a sharp and vibrant image. The slightly-oversaturated colors leave flesh tones looking a little pasty, but that's not a serious complaint.
Unfortunately, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer looks really lousy in dark scenes. For some reason, the studio has chosen to crank up the brightness in all nighttime scenes, including the movie's best sequence, the car crash aftermath with Sherilyn Fenn. 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.
Additionally, Universal has made some further alterations for the French market. Even if you choose to turn off the French subtitles for the movie's dialogue, on-screen text in the film is either forcibly subtitled (the title "Wild at Heart" is subtitled "Sailor et Lula," and "Cape Fear: Somewhere Near the Border Between North and South Carolina" has the further caption "Quelque Part Près de la Frontière Entre la Caroline du Nord et du Sud"), or is replaced altogether ("22 Mois, 18 Jours Plus Tard" rather than "22 Months, 18 Days Later"). This is an annoyance, but luckily the movie doesn't have much text of this sort.
The earlier French Blu-ray from BAC Video has a different video transfer entirely. That disc is a little softer and less vibrant in daylight scenes, but has much better black levels and less ugly noise in dark scenes. All on-screen text appears in the original English. On balance, I marginally prefer the look of the BAC disc. Unfortunately, it's authored with forced French subtitles that cannot be turned off. (Blu-ray players with a subtitle position shift feature may be able to push them down off the screen.)
The audio on Universal's French Blu-ray is encoded in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format. Aside from the on-screen text problem described above, the optional French subtitles for the movie's dialogue can be disabled.
The first thing to note about this track is that David Lynch has developed a distaste for surround sound over the years. Although technically encoded in 5.1 format, the back channels are completely silent throughout. The soundtrack is essentially a 3.1 mix, with all audio in either the front channels or the subwoofer. This matches the Lynch-approved DVD release from 2004, and is simply the way that the director prefers his movies to sound.
With that said, the 5.1 track on this disc suffers an authoring error that causes dialogue to come from all three front channels. (The DVD did not have this flaw.) Even though this may be barely noticeable in some scenes, others sound hollow or echo-y. On the other hand, the audio has a robust dynamic range that's more pleasing than the stereo mix on the UK Blu-ray. 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 has more kick than UK disc's stereo mix, which sounds weaker in comparison. Whether that's worth a trade-off for the dialogue issue is a decision that each viewer will have to decide for him- or herself.
The Universal Blu-ray contains most of the bonus features from MGM's 2004 DVD release. They all have mandatory French subtitles here, though.
The BAC Video Blu-ray has no supplements.
Even though 'Wild at Heart' may be one of my least favorite of David Lynch's films, I still wish to find a definitive Blu-ray edition of it. Sadly, neither of these French releases can accomplish that goal.
The Universal disc has a decent supplement package that carries over most of the bonus features from the old DVD, including a pretty good half-hour documentary. On the downside, it has the same problematic video transfer as the UK Blu-ray, compounded with the replacement of on-screen text during the movie, and also suffers an audio authoring error.
The out-of-print BAC Video Blu-ray has slightly better video and audio quality, and is region-free, but has forced French subtitles and no bonus features.
Both of these discs are for die-hard David Lynch fans only.