Wild at Heart is bold, brassy (sometimes literally, the soundtrack features a few blasts from some demonic trumpets) and about as subtle as Brian Blessed overdubbing an episode of Transformers, yet beneath the cock-crowing visuals, Nicolas Cage as Sailor Ripley is possessed of a tenderness that puts the heart, if you will, in this restless, tempestuous film.
Wild at Heart wears its pulp origins tattooed upon its chest. It follows some strange days and nights in the lives of honeymoon tearaways Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune (Laura Dern) as they attempt to escape from the Bad Circumstances that attempt to drive them from their yellow brick road. Lula’s momma Marietta (Diane Ladd) has placed a hit on Sailor’s head, who once spurned her advances in a bathroom stall and might know too much about the death of Lula’s pappa. Sailor is blue-eyed with love for Lula and muscle-bound with violence for anyone who would stand in the way of that love. In Bad Lieutenant the teal & orange colouration of post-production turned Cage’s eyes to a jaded grey, but here Lynch lights Cage’s eyes so they are clear Texas sky blue. Whether lit by a bedside lamp in a roachy hotel room or by a light hidden in a tree stood in the middle of Texas shrub-land Cage shines… which might have much to do with the iridescent snake-skin jacket he wears throughout the movie that is a symbol of Sailor’s individuality and his “belief in personal freedom”.
This would seem like a fitting manifesto for Cage who, to evoke Fleetwood Mac, tends to ‘go his own way’. While we saw that under the auteurist Coens a fine performance was subsumed into the body of the film as a whole, here Cage stands tall through his unusual decision to perform Sailor in impersonation of Elvis. In interview Cage proclaimed; “In the book An Actor Prepares, by Stanislavski, it says the worst thing an actor can do is to copy another performer. I had always believed that, but then with Wild at Heart, I thought, maybe it’s time to try something else.” The Tennessee drawl, sweet/ sardonic smile and insouciant swagger are all clear signifiers for the King.
Also, putting myself at risk of swooning into a cataleptic state, Cage’s inner furnace of acting power seems to be fuelled by coal-sized lumps of libido! Gasp as Cage kick-boxes his way through a hair-metal routine! Scream as Cage recounts a lurid sexual experience with a kinky weapons enthusiast! Take a cold shower as Cage thrusts his serious face through steamy sex scene after steamy sexy scene! Cage has recounted that as a child he was always shocked when he would go to the doctor’s and find he wasn’t some alien with blood the colour green. In Wild at Heart Cage’s green blood boils over and spits.
But what I love most about Cage’s performance as Sailor Ripley is that through his evident passion for Elvis and the source material, he transforms what could seem glib and cursory in the script, to something downright romantic. Many critics have argued that the romance between Sailor and Lula in the film is intentionally corny and a parody of the earnest romances of 50s Hollywood cinema. What is pretty special about Lynch is his ability to make cynicism and sincerity compatible and it is Cage’s performance which allows for this fusion animated, as it is, by a brimful of desire.
Also, Cage and Dern are a useful point of anchorage and identification in the film, which is a rogue’s gallery of creeps and carnies. There is a lot of ‘casting at face value’ going on by Lynch here (see also Terry Gilliam) which has the advantage of creating a cohesive-feeling world of nightmarish deformity and the sure disadvantage of using funny looking faces as scene-dressing and little more. William “Willem” Dafoe is particularly repulsive as Bobby Peru, a warped and giggling sleazebag with teeth that look like extended stalks of gum braced with metal. Cage’s manly yet angelic face, even when sheathed in a nylon tight, fares comparatively well besides it.
I have a real fondness for Lynch, especially at his most grubby-fingered. While his stories may be slight, his sound work and shadows compensate through atmosphere. Wild at Heart is undoubtably a road movie with several pit-stops, but it also includes stretches of sublime film-making. I would hardly be the first to describe Lynch’s films as oneiric and there are times where the outlandishness of Wild at Heart seems too calculated to fully justify the description, yet there are other moments still where some grand intuition on Lynch’s part has clicked the elements into place and the film registers a shift of consciousness, in which the viewer feels transported to a stranger, queasier plane of seeing, a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.
One sequence, firmly within this blue-and-purple-Bemuda-Triangle-nightmare-of-a-lost-child territory involves a car crash and its victim (Sherilyn Fenn) pleading desperately for Sailor and Lula to help her locate a lost comb that is bookended perfectly by mesmeric, cyclical guitar music that plays as if uninterrupted on the car’s radio before and after the accident, as if the tragedy was an interlude that took place in quite a different time and place to the one occupied by Sailor and Lula cruising along in their car.
Take it away, Cage:
(A sterling performance of Love Me Tender by Cage, while wearing a plasticine conk over his real nose – somehow it seems to assimilate with his face)