Wild At Heart Review

David Lynch’s Wild At Heart has tended to be overlooked in the almost 15 years since it was released, never matching the disturbing intensity of the director’s singular Eraserhead or Blue Velvet and being eclipsed by the profoundly unsettling and rather more consistent violent horrors of both Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway. Wild At Heart certainly lives up to its title however, pushing a rather simple pulp crime-romance situation to extremes with a cast of colourful characters and some typical Lynch descents into absurdity. With MGM’s Special Edition of the film on DVD, it’s time for another look at The Wild Life of Sailor and Lula.

Sailor Ripley and Lula are two lovers with a burning passion for each other. Lula’s mother Marianne however, doesn’t like their relationship. She knows that Sailor has a troubled past and may even know a little too much about her own involvement in a particular incident where her husband died in a fire at their house. She tries to have Sailor killed, but only succeeds in getting him jailed on a manslaughter charge when he rather viciously succeeds in defending himself. After two years in a Correctional Facility, Sailor and Lula’s passion for each other has only grown more heated. They set out on the road to escape from the forces that want to keep them apart, heading deeper south into New Orleans and Texas, running into bizarre characters and dangerous criminals who have been hired to break them apart.

It’s hard to avoid clichéd references to “burning passion” and “heat” in any description of Wild At Heart. The film itself has no problem mining the fire references with images of flames, heat and burning scattered throughout the film quite intentionally to intensify the sense of danger and the passion of the runaway lovers. The director misses no opportunity to cut away to close-ups of lighted matches, smouldering cigarette flames, topless fire-breathers and blazing infernos, to hammer home not only the “mystery” of Lula’s father’s death, but to add to the intensity of the on-screen action and romance. These images, even the lighting of a match, are further heightened by explosive sound-effects. This is David Lynch at his most extreme – although it’s true he rarely operates in any other gear – from the opening shot of blazing flames leading into Sailor Ripley’s brutal killing of Bob Ray Lemon, beating his head into a bloody pulp to a pounding death-metal soundtrack, Lynch starts over-the-top and pushes characters and situations further to extremes as the film goes along. As there isn’t so much of a plot as such, Lynch spices up the proceedings – as if it needed any further touches – by transposing the film onto a Wizard of Oz structure and crow-barring in as many references to Wicked Witches, Emerald Cities and Yellow-brick roads as he can onto a film that is already overloaded with every American southern gothic trapping imaginable from voodoo rituals to Angelo Badalamenti’s jazzy score.

Subtle is not a word you could use either to describe any of the characters or performances in Wild At Heart. Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe and Diane Ladd are studiously eccentric and mannered to such a degree that they are truly spellbinding to watch – fully entering into David Lynch’s vision for them. Cage certainly has never been better, able to carry the part of Sailor Ripley as far into absurdity as he likes yet retaining an integrity and consistence to the character. In any one scene he can swing from joyous exuberance, moshing to a metal band, to being dangerously threatening and then a dashing romantic, crooning an Elvis song to his girlfriend. Lynch has rarely been so eclectic and playful with a film’s overall mood, so this can be unsettling, swinging from one moment between comedy, ultra-violence and camp with barely a blink of the eye. Adding to the mixture, Lynch also throws in some of his most bizarre characters to have appeared in any of his films using his regular cast of eccentrics – Grace Zabriskie as a disturbing crippled voodoo witch, Freddie Jones as a quacking man at a bar, Jack Nance as the weirdo sitting around a campfire, Harry Dean Stanton as a good-natured, unsuspecting private detective, Sherilyn Fenn as a road-crash victim and Sheryl Lee as the Good Witch of the East. Topping them all is Willem Dafoe as sleazy criminal Bobby Peru – magnificently deranged in both a comical and disturbingly dangerous way and the ever-strange Crispin Glover as Jingle Dell, the sandwich-making obsessive with a sexual fixation on cockroaches.

Lynch’s key to making all this work is in the central relationship of Sailor and Lula, which is not as bizarre as it might seem, rather a powerful force, demonstrating all the virtues of the most romantic and loving of relationships – true friendship, equality, mutual respect and, just as importantly, great sex. The relationship between Sailor & Lula is certainly one of the most unconventional romances on film, but it is also one of the most touching and sincere. You just know that every single melodramatic line uttered by Lula in her southern drawl and every romantic Elvis Presley-like declaration of Sailor Ripley is deeply heartfelt for all its apparent silliness. It’s a sheer delight to watch such characters in a film so comfortable in its own absurdity, that revels in its weirdness and that has so many marvellous, original moments that can terrify and deeply unsettle one moment and make you roar with laughter the next.

MGM’s Region 1 Special Edition of Wild At Heart is a real treat for David Lynch fans. Resisting the temptation to spread this across a 2-DVD set, the disc nevertheless boasts a superb transfer of the film and an extensive set of extra features. All the extra features, bar the image gallery, EPK and TV spots are anamorphically enhanced. The DVD comes in an amaray case held within a cardboard slipcase. A four-page booklet contains a chapter listing and a list of characters and their relationship to each other, which would certainly come in handy for anyone seeing the film for the first time.

The restored picture on MGM’s DVD looks marvellous. The 2.35:1 aspect ratio is transferred anamorphically and the print is very clean with practically not a single mark or scratch. There is some evidence of grain in scenes, but it is at a decent level and doesn’t affect the quality of the transfer. Night-time scenes tend to show up grain problems rather more. Colour levels look slightly on the reddish side and over-warm, reds blooming alarmingly. Since the DVD was remastered from the original negative with David Lynch’s approval, you have to accept that this is how he wants the film to look and it is certainly appropriate for a film that strives to convey heat at every possible opportunity. Edge-enhancement is occasionally noticeable and synchronisation of colours seems to be slightly out causing colour bleed – I found this the most irritating flaw in the transfer which, apart from being slightly on the soft side, is otherwise very impressive. One other thing to note, there is a suspicion that some scenes, or at least one in particular involving the fate of Bobby Peru, has been censored slightly. Without going through the film frame by frame, this makes no difference at all and seems to me to be of little significance.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of the original Dolby Digital 2.0 surround track is reasonably good and entirely faithful to the original mix, which is included as well. The sound is overall strong and quite powerful. The dialogue is perfectly clear and there is no sign of any background noise or hiss. Volume is a little low however and lacks the really emphatic pounding that some of the scenes demand, but for most home cinema set-ups this should come across quite well. A Spanish mono dub is also included.

English hard of hearing subtitles are provided and, on the sampling I made of them, looked accurate and complete. Spanish and French subtitles are also included.

Love, Death, Elvis and Oz: The Making of Wild At Heart (29:50)
The ‘Making of’ contains recent interviews with all the principal cast including Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Willem Dafoe and Sheryl Lee, and every main crew member, including photographer Frederic Elmes, sound designer Randy Thom, writer Barry Gifford and David Lynch himself. All the interviews are highly illuminating and interesting and the documentary also includes some archive behind-the-scenes footage of scenes being filmed. You really couldn’t expect more from a ‘Making of’…

Dell’s Lunch Counter
…except for more of the same. A number of specific scenes are looked at in more detail with more anecdotes about their filming from the cast and crew. This includes Lula’s Momma (3:05), Sailor & Lula Get Born (1:52) , “Wild At Heart and Weird On Top” (2:26) , The Good Witch (1:43) , Pigeons (2:11) , The Red Pipe (2:13) , Cannes (3:42) , “Not You Head-Head” (1:24) and The Snakeskin Jacket (2:15).

Sailor & Lula Image Gallery (2:11)
A slideshow of film stills and promo photos of the hot couple.

Specific Spontaneity: Focus on David Lynch (7:16) Again from the same series of interviews, cast and crew reflect on the David Lynch experience.

David Lynch on the DVD Process
Lynch talks about how a High Definition master was taken from the original negative and how important it is to get the right colour levels for the DVD version.

Original EPK Featurette
This is more or less the standard promotional Electronic Press Kit, but is interesting for seeing the original perspective on the film. There are some behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Lynch and some of the cast.

4 TV Spots (1:08) and Original Theatrical Trailer (1:50)
Four TV spots are practically identical, while the trailer, presented anamorphically, is great, giving a sense of the film’s strangeness and power, with no spoilers.

Wild At Heart has never been my favourite David Lynch film and I approached this DVD release with an 8 rating in my head for the film, but watching it again I can’t find anything to fault. It’s just as deliriously insane as it was when I first saw it on the screen in 1990, and is perhaps all the more enjoyable now for still being so unique and for proudly demonstrating its uncompromising attitude and willingness to work against the mainstream. I could probably get away with deducting a point for the film not having much in the way of a real plot, but David Lynch films have an internal coherence of their own (or none at all depending on your viewpoint), and Wild At Heart is actually more consistent in its tone than most Lynch films. So a 10 it is. Unfortunately, I can’t be quite so generous with the DVD transfer, but neither can I complain too much. Apart from one or two minor niggles, the film is transferred extremely well here and the extra features, while not having much in variety and coming mostly from the same series of interviews, are all interesting and worthwhile.

10 out of 10
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