There’s No Need To Make Life Tougher Than It Has To Be

Wild at Heart (1990)

illustration by Brianna Ashby

It’s a tricky thing, to blend highly stylized artifice with real emotion, and perhaps WILD AT HEART doesn’t always get it right. The attempt, though, is pure rock ‘n roll.


“There’s a lot of rock ‘n’ roll in Wild at Heart. Rock ‘n’ roll is a rhythm and it’s love and sex and dreams all swimming together. You don’t have to be young to appreciate rock ‘n’ roll, but it is a kind of youthful dream about reveling in freedom.”

—David Lynch, Room to Dream


David Lynch’s
Wild at Heart opens with fire. We never see its main characters, Sailor and Lula, fall in love. We don’t see the blissful beginning of their relationship—the beautiful warped time that comes with the early stages of obsessively losing yourself in someone else. We meet them, instead, in a moment of crisis that will reshape the landscape of their love, ensuring that every ensuing breath they take together is perfumed with the cloying scent of nostalgia.

Like nearly everything Lynch has created, Wild at Heart haunts the space after the idyllic 1950s American suburban dream was proven corrupt, but outside of an ability to not at least secretly long for some shred of that back. It makes sense, then, that the main character (Nicolas Cage’s Sailor Ripley) models himself (or perhaps, unconsciously, is modeled by the invisible hand of the filmmaker) after Elvis. Elvis, the perfectly imperfect symbol of American youth in the ‘50s, who inhabited impossible paradoxes: sexual threat and Southern mama’s boy; white American Army boy and vessel of Black rhythm; carefree, innocent, laughably formulaic movie star and deeply troubled drug addict spiraling out of control. 

What do you do when the world you live in has thrown you more than you can carry? You put on a show. You wear something gold. You retreat into fantasy. You dream.

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When Wild at Heart won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the booing from the audience mingled with the cheers. David Lynch stood onstage, listening to the jeers, smiling. “It’s a true—a dream come true,” he said. Dreams, in Lynch’s world, do often come true, tinted though they may be with shades of terror.   

The film wasn’t well received when it came out, garnering its share of negative reviews from critics, who questioned Wild at Heart’s repulsive and manipulative” nature, called it “disjointed” and “empty,” and wondered whether there was any meaning behind the violence other than shock value and absurdity.1 I’ll admit, it’s not my favorite Lynch film, but it also holds a sort of irresistible sway over me. Years ago, somehow, my then-boyfriend/now-husband Chris and I caught the final scene of Wild at Heart on television. The image of Nicolas Cage singing “Love Me Tender” to Laura Dern on top of a car while she punctuates his crooning with mannered exclamations—“Sailor!”—was instantly compelling. The scene pulses with a magnetism and an unreal elevation of human connection that is hard to resist. Even now, watching it, I can feel its magic. The credits that scroll over the couple for the duration of the song only somehow help it mean more—it’s that exclusively Lynchian ability to call out artifice while also injecting the artifice with something that feels real. We talked about playing that scene at our wedding, but determined, ultimately, that the confusion and reaction of our parents would not be worth it.2 If you’re looking for a fantasy of true love, though, I’d choose Sailor and Lula over the stereotypical wedding cake couple in their tuxedo and long white dress any day.

When we meet Sailor, he’s being threatened in the lobby of what looks to be an upscale theater of some kind in Cape Fear by a hired killer with a knife. Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” plays softly in the background. Within 30 seconds, Sailor is pummeling the man on the staircase—slamming him into the wall and bashing his head on the banister and the floor until it breaks open—as Powermad’s “Slaughterhouse” kicks in and Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) screams. The violence is abrupt, extreme, and near-cartoonish. Nicolas Cage radiates uncontrolled emotion. Laura Dern is, as she will be again in Lynch’s universe, a distorted and complicated Woman In Trouble. 

If quick world-building is usually key to audience buy-in, rapid-fire world-building like this may actually have the opposite effect. Lynch piles on his signature moves relentlessly: the angled shot of the ceiling, canted just enough to destabilize the viewer; the close-ups on distorted facial expressions; the caricature of the possibly insane mother (in Twin Peaks, Grace Zabriskie’s unsettling Sarah Palmer—here, Diane Ladd’s much more unquestionably evil Marietta Fortune); the over-the-top violence executed with glee; the actors who have clearly been made to understand that their roles are simultaneously serious and farcical—commedia dell’arte-adjacent. You’d be forgiven for bailing after the first three minutes if this sort of thing just isn’t for you. You’d also be forgiven for wanting more. 

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There is something about porous boundaries that compels me. It’s what draws me to horror, to the surreal, to the distorted. There is also something about porous boundaries that, obviously, compels David Lynch. I am far from the first person to make this observation (there is a whole entire book, for example, called David Lynch: Blurred Boundaries); his oeuvre is full of characters who slide between selves, between dimensions, between realities, between the seconds. He prefers curtains to walls, water to stone; even when there are hard barriers between characters and something they want, Lynch makes sure to leave holes and slats in those barriers. His catalog of work is full of penetrable surfaces, pervious lives. 

The music he is drawn to, too, echoes this interest in liminality. He often picks music that encourages a sort of nostalgic slippage—either because it is laid down in juxtaposition with a scene that feels tonally and chronologically separate from the track, or because the song itself is layered with the construction and desires of something it can no longer truly be. In Wild at Heart, the soundtrack veers from Romantic-era classical to speed metal, all of it quite loud,3 creating a soundscape that destabilizes even as it constantly asks the viewer to access emotions they aren’t necessarily prepared to access. In an iconic scene painted heavily with black comedy, Lula attempts to find something to listen to on the radio as she and Sailor road-trip west from North Carolina to Texas, fleeing the forces that are attempting to separate them (her mother, his parole officer, life itself). She flips channels, hearing blips of increasingly absurd and surreally upsetting news stories (“shot and killed her three children”—“heinous”—“Roy had had sex with the corpse”—“released 500 turtles into the Ganges to try and reduce human pollution, and now plan to put in the crocodiles to devour floating corpses”). “Holy shit!” she screams, and pulls over (“I never heard so much SHIT in all my life”), yelling at Sailor to find some music on the radio “THIS INstant, I MEAN it!” Out of the car now, they scream and kick as Powermad blares over the radio, thrashing their bodies as the dust rises around them.4

Suddenly, though, they embrace, and Richard Strauss’s “Im Abendrot” swells around them. The sun is setting. The landscape—tinted sepia in the evening light—arches delicately, imitating the curve of the earth. We ease into the music to slip, with Sailor and Lula, from aching horror to fantastical beauty.

It’s a tricky thing, to blend highly stylized artifice with real emotion, and perhaps Wild at Heart doesn’t always get it right. The attempt, though, is pure rock ‘n roll: a performance manipulated to draw out screams, an outfit calculated to elicit swoons, a persona dreamed up as a façade to protect something scared and vulnerable deep inside. 

In his acceptance speech for the 1970 Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Nation Award, Elvis (borrowing from the old Vincent Youmans song “Without a Song”) spoke with his publicly characteristic innocence and seriousness:  

When I was a child, ladies and gentlemen, I was a dreamer. I read comic books and I was the hero of the comic book. I saw movies and I was the hero in the movie. So every dream I ever dreamed has come true a hundred times…I learned very early in life that: “Without a song, the day would never end; without a song, a man ain’t got a friend; without a song, the road would never bend—without a song.” So I keep singing a song. Good night. Thank you. 

So I keep singing a song.5 The tragic simplicity of this worldview is heightened by the knowledge that singing a song is not and has never been enough. It would not be enough for Elvis. It was not enough for Kurt Cobain, or Karen Carpenter, or Jim Morrison. It was not enough for Judy Garland. Nevertheless, they kept singing up until the end—through the pain and on top of the pain. Lynch himself continues to believe in the power song holds in the midst of tragedy and crisis, whether that song comes from the exceedingly strange Lady in the Radiator, any number of intent performers at Twin Peaks’ Roadhouse, a captivating Rebekah Del Rio in the impossible dream of Club Silencio, or a mesmerizing Dean Stockwell lip-syncing into a lightbulb. 

In Lynch’s films, song acts the way it acts on people in advanced stages of dementia: it tugs on a cord that is still there, somehow, even if the bell it was once connected to has gone silent. It allows for momentary lucidity in an otherwise clouded and chaotic realm. It bleeds through the barrier between transcendent meaning and restrictively painful reality. 

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Trauma, of course, does the opposite: it reinforces that wall to a terrifying degree, making it hard for survivors to operate with any degree of hope. Wild at Heart, like so much of Lynch’s work, lives and breathes in a post-traumatic space; “Uncle Pooch’s” rape of 13-year-old Lula haunts the film, as does the question of her father’s perpetration of violence (sexual or otherwise) on both her and her mother. Lula navigates various triggers throughout the film that appear to call up her past experiences, chief among them her upsetting encounter with Bobby Peru (a very disturbing Willem Dafoe) in her motel room.6 But I thought you said this movie was about youthful dreams of freedom?! Sure. The thing about youthful dreams, you see, is that you can’t actually have them when you’re young. “Youthful dreams” only begin to materialize when you’ve experienced enough of the worst parts of life to know that, at some undefined moment in the past, you were better off. 

Interestingly, though Sailor’s outsized and horrifying act of violence kicks off the film’s action, and would seem to be something that could re-traumatize a survivor, Lula’s trust in him is always rewarded. It’s one of the things that makes their relationship so beautiful—she talks shamelessly to him about her rape, about the pain in her past that has shaped her, and he hears her and sees her and receives her so openly that it doesn’t feel strange or upsetting for them to move fluidly from the remembering of sexual pain to a shared experience of sexual bliss. 

It’s this insistent strain of attempting to navigate a world that has been broken in half for you at a young age that (purposefully) sours some of the film—and also allows for Lynch’s Wizard of Oz imagery to enter into the world of the movie, a campy palimpsest of possibility. While interpretations of the original The Wizard of Oz may vary (hidden meanings range from a political allegory about populism and the gold standard to a Pilgrim’s Progress-esque allegory of Christian faith), there’s no question that the film is haunted by its own cast and lore and conspiracies. The character of Dorothy seems inseparable from the troubled Judy Garland, who was asked from a young age to change her appearance and diet, permanently undermining her self-confidence, and prescribed drugs to keep up with the pace of the film contract she labored under in her teens. As a child, she endured multiple separations and reunifications between her parents, whose marriage was imperiled by persistent rumors of her father’s affairs with men; her mother controlled her career and behavior from a very young age, and Garland herself called her mother “the real Wicked Witch of the West.” This seems to take on extra significance when we remember that it is Lula’s mother who inhabits the Wicked Witch role in Wild at Heart, seemingly both jealous of her daughter’s freedom and relationships and broken—perhaps by her own traumas—in a way that makes her believe that controlling Lula is the key to her own happiness and fulfillment.7

In The Wizard of Oz, of course, Dorothy slips from her sepia-toned Kansas farm to a technicolor city built on lies and manipulated vision, where she encounters nearly inhuman deviations of various people in her life. A dream world? Yes, one that is undeniably disturbing, yet punctuated by hopeful interludes of song. (Sound familiar?) One wonders, was it just the blunt force trauma to her head during a hurricane that initiated this slide into fantasy? Or was there something else there—some deeper trauma that Dorothy was attempting to process through her color-saturated reveries? 

The imagery that Lynch weaves into Wild at Heart is certainly not reassuring at first, entering largely through the insane Marietta Fortune, who bears the weight of Lynch’s need for a proxy-of-evil character. The scene where she paints her face and arms with lipstick and then calls her private detective lover Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) just to repeatedly tell him she’s not going to tell him what she’s about to do, ask him to meet her at a restaurant to “fix it up,” and then hangs up in order to vomit is—for lack of a better term—fucking terrifying. Lula finally defeats her by throwing water on a photograph of her, symbolically melting away the last tie that Lula had to her traumatic childhood. You can almost hear Ladd screaming, “Oh, what a world, what a world!” 

*

I don’t know where I stand on interpreting the end sequence, which is either unfolding in the characters’ reality or some sort of twisted, utopic Jacob’s Ladder moment-of-dying fantasia. The facts are: Sailor, upon being released from prison once again—this time for a bank robbery planned with Bobby Peru that turned out to be a set-up for his own murder—tells a heartbroken Lula that he cannot reunite with her and their now young son because he will only make their lives worse. Walking away from the prison, alone, parallel to the double yellow line in the strangely deserted road, Sailor is inexplicably surrounded by a gang of men who attack him. They leave him lying in the road, and then something happens. Their shadows disappear. A pink globe apparates in the sky, revealing none other than Glinda the Good Witch, played by a radiant Sheryl Lee. “Sailor,” she intones, hovering above the ground. “Don’t be afraid, Sailor…If you’re truly wild at heart, you’ll fight for your dreams. Don’t turn away from love, Sailor,” she pleads with him. “Don’t turn away from love.” 

Is this vision real? Is it just a blackout-induced mirage? Is it the stuff that comes before death, a portal into another world? Is the subsequent serenade and reunion between Sailor and Lula real? I don’t know. I don’t know what I think. What I want to think is that yes, love is still possible in this torn-up, burned-up thing we call life. I want to think that there is transcendence, that there is connection—that there is a possible road to healing after trauma, that song can save us, that we do have individuality and freedom despite the prisons the world tries to put us in, that there is something stronger than evil and it wears a snakeskin jacket (perhaps as a symbol, as it proclaims, or perhaps as a protective shell against the horrors of this planet). I want to think that the youthful rock ‘n roll spirit of Sailor and Lula is something that doesn’t die with age or experience—that nostalgic dreams, while still dreams, can act on people, not just preserve something unreachable in amber. I want to think that the road leads somewhere. I want to think that there is something behind the curtain, be it in Oz or in the Red Room. I want to live in a world that lets me slip between the cracks and emerge somewhere beautiful. 

Love me tender, love me true / All my dreams fulfilled, Sailor sings. And isn’t that just it?

  1. It’s interesting to me that so many critics focused on the violent nature of the film, and not its deeply disturbing themes of sexual abuse. (I could theorize on why so many male critics would attach themselves to decrying themes of violence rather than dealing with the trauma that stems from sexual violation—but I don’t think this is the essay for that.)
  2. We did, however, use Nicolas Cage’s final monologue from Raising Arizona as one of our readings. Is Cage the best there’s ever been at expressing the kind of true love all passionate oddballs feel?
  3. In the biography/memoir Room to Dream, Lynch’s editor Duwayne Dunham recalls: “The first cut of Wild at Heart came in at four hours, and the first time we screened it for a few people David played the music way too loud—but, wow, it made your fingernails rise!”
  4. Moments like this remind me, somehow, of the destructive surrealism surrounding Sid and Nancy’s love story in Alex Cox’s 1986 film; it’s not a large leap from Sailor and Lula’s violent roadside exercises to Sid and Nancy’s garbage-framed kiss.
  5. What is a song, really, but a youthful dream?
  6. Lillian Crawford’s essay on Lula as a survivor of trauma over at Little White Lies says so much about this topic, better than I could!
  7. Even more significance, perhaps, since Diane Ladd is also Laura Dern’s real-life mother! I don’t mean to imply, of course, that there’s anything sour in their personal relationship—but the ripple-effect of their actual biological connection is fascinating.