203. WILD AT HEART (1990)

“This whole world’s wild at heart and weird on top.”–Lula Fortune, Wild at Heart


FEATURING: , , Diane Ladd, , , J.E. Freeman

PLOT: After being released from prison for manslaughter, Sailor Ripley and love-of-his-life Lula Fortune head west to California, but are waylaid by Lula’s psychotically protective mother and various colorful agents under the employ of the effete and mysterious Mr. Reindeer. Their travels take them to New Orleans, where Johnny Farragut, a hired detective, tracks them down. As the noose tightens, the West-bound lovers make a detour to the town of Big Tuna, where, unbeknownst to Sailor, hit man Bobby Peru awaits his arrival.

Still from Wild at Heart (1990)

  • Wild at Heart was adapted from Barry Gifford’s pulpy 1989 novel “Wild at Heart” (which gave birth to multiple sequels). While the movie ending’s differed greatly from the book’s, Gifford was pleased and praised David Lynch’s choice.
  • Winner of the 1990 Palme D’Or prize at Cannes, the year before fellow Certified Weird movie Barton Fink. Film critic Roger Ebert headed a large group of those dissatisfied with the jury’s choice, and was among many American reviewers who were much less impressed than the Cannes crowd.
  • Wild at Heart was released just before “NC-17” became a ratings option with the MPAA later in 1990. It scraped by with an “R” rating by obscuring the effects of a nasty shotgun head wound. (It was subsequently re-rated NC-17 for the home video release).
  • Actors from Lynch’s then-current hit series “Twin Peaks” who have cameo roles in Wild at Heart: Sherilyn Fenn, , , David Patrick Kelly, and (appearing in his fourth Lynch feature).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Like so many offerings from David Lynch, Wild at Heart is riddled with great shots—but an early image of Sailor Ripley pointing defiantly at the woman who just tried to have him killed captures his character’s sheer force-of-nature that drives the film’s unrestrained progression.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Lipstick face; cockroach underpants; the Good Witch

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: While in the middle of working on his hit soap-opera “Twin Peaks,” David Lynch took a break to make something that allowed him to explore his weirder side. Throughout Wild at Heart, the viewer is exposed to such a smorgasbord of road-movie madness—highway hallucinations, small town weirdos, classic-cool criminals, a mountain of lipstick, and dozens of lit matches—that by the end of the movie, Lynch has already accomplished most of what and would spend the subsequent decade retreading.

Original trailer for Wild at Heart

COMMENTS: Before he got lost on a highway and before he went to California looking for Mullholland Drive, David Lynch was Wild at Heart. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Lynch’s picture feels less dated and less heavy-handed than the plethora of ’90s pastiche pictures that came after it. With a young Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern under his direction, Lynch delivered a loosely justified narrative of a road movie that allowed him to take countless detours onto some very, very dark off-ramps of the ciné-American psyche.

The story starts with a burning match, a recurring image that foreshadows dangers to come. At the rate the characters smoke, those matches are lit with sadistic frequency. The film’s hero, as it were, is Sailor Ripley (Nicholas Cage). Right off the bat we learn everything we need to know about him: he beat a knife-wielding assassin who was sent to kill him by the mother of his great love to death. Lula Fortune (Laura Dern), passionately loves Sailor, feelings that are matched in reverse by her increasingly unhinged mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd). The boy spends not quite two years in jail for his trouble, and upon being released on parole promptly breaks it to take Lula down the yellow brick road to California. Marietta, naturally, has other plans, motivated by protectiveness for her daughter and paranoid vindictiveness against Sailor, as she engineers a series of interferences and calamities for the love-smitten pair.

Beyond this, not much narrative is needed. Starting somewhere between North and South Carolina, Sailor and Lula head West toward freedom, making every possible reference to Elvis and The Wizard of Oz as they drive for hours on end, interrupted only by bursts of tragedy and blackly humorous encounters with a cavalcade of freaks, eccentrics, home-spun folkies, and wacko adversaries. Their wild (!) ride, in various beautifully maintained vintage cars, naturally, becomes a race against death when Marietta, in a fit of paranoid angst, brings the slimy gangster Santos (J.E. Freeman) into the mix. The trademark Lynchian combination of humor and ill-ease ensues.

The weird and wild (!) elements of this movie are of such quantity that perhaps it is best to begin by mentioning the only character in the movie who could remotely be mistaken for an actual person. Harry Dean Stanton plays Johnnie Farragut, a some-time private investigator and the much put-upon lover of Marietta Fortune. Drawing from his infinite well of fatigue and endurance, Stanton makes Farragut into the movie’s only wholly sympathetic figure. He endlessly suffers through Marrietta’s mental gyrations and doggedly pursues the task she puts him to: find and stop the two lovebirds. He is so resigned to his fate that even when he’s staring down the pointy end of a nutjob Euro-trash artiste hit-woman (Grace Zabriskie), his expression says, “Well, this is it… just wish they’d get on with it.” His untimely demise at her hands resulted in the first of the major cuts before even the Cannes crowd got to see it . 80 to 100 test audience members reportedly walked out in disgust (and, allegedly, from health concerns) during two early versions of his execution. The movie’s already tenuous grip with reality is largely severed—and we’re only about halfway through.

Littered amidst the hyper-love of the hyper-charged and hyper-naïve pair’s adventures are standard Lynchisms. In fact, since he worked on this while also doing his “Twin Peaks” thing, he borrowed some of his toys from the show to round it out. Lounge jazz springs up in unlikely places, Sherilyn “Audrey Horne” Fenn appears out of nowhere, and the inimitable Jack Nance pops by to play a burnt-out rocket scientist—just long enough to give the movie’s most memorable monologue. (“My dog barks some. Mentally you picture my dog, but I have not told you the type of dog which I have. Perhaps you even picture Toto, from The Wizard of Oz. But I can tell you, my dog is always with me. WOOF!”) One must assume that not only do Wild at Heart and “Twin Peaks” exist in the same universe, but also that all of Lynch’s work (barring, perhaps, his unlikely Elephant Man) act as a fun-house mirror of human reality (albeit a rather un-fun fun-house mirror).

Having gotten this far, it would be difficult to avoid an all-out play-by-play of the freak show Lynch & Co. put together for us to enjoy. One particular scene worth mentioning shows Lula driving through Austin, listening to the radio. Incredibly horrific news blurbs bleed into each other as she frantically tries to change stations, hoping to find some music to play. In frustration, she pulls the car over and demands that Ripley (sleeping in the back) “get some music on that radio this instant!” In an episode lasting a few minutes, Lynch covers the ground that Oliver Stone would spend an entire movie ruminating over a few years later. The lesson? Lynch can be an economic story-teller when he tries. Also, Austin, Texas is one of the most terrible places in the world.

And I still haven’t gotten to: Willem Dafoe as Bobby Peru (“like the country”), Crispin Glover’s cameo as Cousin “Jingle” Dell, make-up madness, the house of topless maids, Sailor wanting “to apologize to you gentlemen for referring to you as homosexuals,” the Good Witch, and the general lack of parental guidance.

In brief, Wild at Heart is a wonderful showcase for those who prefer Lynch’s weirdness over his lack of clarity. The film may not be as intellectual as Lost Highway, as mystical as Mulholland Drive, or as accessible as Blue Velvet, but it boldly displays everything those who love Lynch at his most wild (!) and in-your-face could want.


“Mr. Lynch believes that more is more but, after a while, the film’s odd inventions begin to exhaust. Unlike those in ‘Blue Velvet,’ these inventions become ends in themselves… One comes out of the theater feeling as if the mind has begun to melt.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“The movie is lurid melodrama, soap opera, exploitation, put-on and self-satire. It deals in several scenes of particularly offensive violence, and tries to excuse them by juvenile humor: It’s all a joke, you see, and so if the violence offends you, you didn’t get the joke… Lynch wraps his violence in humor, not as a style, but as a strategy. Luis Bunuel, the late and gifted Spanish surrealist, made films as cheerfully perverted and decadent as anything Lynch has ever dreamed of, but he had the courage to declare himself. Lynch seems to be doing a Bunuel script with a Jerry Lewis rewrite.“–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

“This attempt at a one-up also trumpets its weirdness, but this time the agenda seems forced.”–Mike Clark, USA Today (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: Wild at Heart (1990)


David Lynch Pushes America to the Edge – 1990 New York Times profile of Lynch

At the Movies – Lawrence Van Gelder’s August 17, 1990, column for The New York Times contains quotes from Nic Cage and Laura Dern about their Wild at Heart alter-egos

And Weird On Top: Revisiting David Lynch’s ‘Wild at Heart’ – Well though-out and balanced appreciation from “The Film Stage”‘s Ethan Vestby

35 Years of David Lynch: WILD AT HEART (1990) – Expansive and thorough analysis of Wild at Heart from Michael Warren’s “35 Years of David Lynch” project

DVD INFO: Kino-Lorber reissued a DVD version of Wild at Heart (buy) in 2015. A Region B Blu-ray (not compatible with North American systems) exists, as well the long-ago sold out 3000 disc limited edition Blu-ray from small-run specialty releaser Screen Archives. However, the transfer for the film on the standard DVD is lovely, and reflects the same care as the 2004 “Special Edition” (which has since gone out of print, but can be bought cheaply). You might just as well spring for the Kino edition, as it seems to have the exact same content, albeit with different cover art. (Unfortunately, the new version lacks the snakeskin-motif DVD jacket, which symbolized the older disc’s individuality and its belief in personal freedom). The “Making-of” featurette provided among the handful of bonus items is well-worth the thirty minute time investment. Lynch and the gang reminisce about various aspects of production, acting, and so on. It’s definitely a puff-piece, but one that involves a high number of fun eccentrics.

UPDATE 8/24: Shout! Factory has upgraded the image for Blu-ray (https://www.amazon.com/Wild-at-Heart-Collectors-Blu-ray/dp/B07D2XKQXF/) in a “Collectors Edition” that adds at least one new feature: an interview with Barry Gifford, writer of the original novel.

4 thoughts on “203. WILD AT HEART (1990)”

  1. I would have picked either the Good Witch or Dianne Ladd’s lipstick as the indelible image, but that’s personal preference. I understand why you’d want Cage.

    I find myself in sympathy with the critics of the film. I think many were suffering from Lynch fatigue at the time, as “Twin Peaks” fever was at its height, and things were ripe for a backlash. Still, although Lynch seldom made a bad film, I confess I can’t rank Wild at Heart among his best. It’s like “David Lynch makes an exploitation movie.” That’s not a bad thing in itself, but this one doesn’t have the weight and seriousness, or the emotional connection, of his best work. Of course, its weirdness is profound enough to place it on the List.

  2. WILD AT HEART was also part of the 10-disc ‘Lime Green Box Set’ released in 2008 by Lynch’s company Absurda, which also included the films ERASERHEAD, THE ELEPHANT MAN, BLUE VELVET as well as extras, short films and a ‘Mystery Disc’ which had 75 minutes of deleted and extended scenes from WILD AT HEART.

  3. Some of my favorite scenes are peripheral to the feature…ie., lots of the deleted scenes that are on this blu ray – the hitchhiking scene w/Tracey Walter, more great stuff with Harry Dean Stanton, and my favorite: a throwaway roadhouse bar scene with Cage and Dern that was magnificent.

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