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Wild at Heart

When tracking the career of oddball genius David Lynch, one might pinpoint 1990 as a watershed year — the period when his particular brand of weirdness came to a cultural boiling point, making him an integral part of the new decade's Zeitgeist. In April of that year, Lynch's television series "Twin Peaks" hit the airwaves, inspiring millions of viewers to obsess over the murder of Laura Palmer, the meaning behind the dancing dwarf, and FBI agent Dale Cooper's love of a good slice of pie. Then in late summer, at the height of "Twin Peaks" mania, he released Wild at Heart — a brutal road movie/love story/black comedy that combined violence, sex, Elvis, and The Wizard of Oz, winning the Palme d'Or in Cannes after playing to a crowd that cheered and booed the film in equal measures. It's perhaps the most flat-out Lynchian of all the director's films, both brilliant and deeply self-indulgent, and it certainly wasn't embraced by every critic at the time of its release — Roger Ebert (who also famously disliked Blue Velvet) said he felt repulsed and manipulated by the film, and wrote that Lynch "exercises the consistent streak of misogynism" in his work. Indeed, Wild at Heart isn't an easy film to digest, populated by broadly drawn eccentrics with an almost anecdotal plot and occasionally loathsome imagery. But for those with a taste for Lynch's perverse humor, iconoclastic visual sense, and goofy, twisted characters, it stands as one of the two or three most striking pictures in the director's filmography.

Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) loves Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. Unfortunately, Lula's rich mama Marietta (Diane Ladd) hates bad-boy Sailor, believing him to know a secret she's long kept hidden, and she wants to see him dead — and after Sailor beats Marietta's hitman to death with his bare hands, mama figures that at least she's managed to separate the pair by sending Sailor off to prison. But true love, no matter how freaky, will find a way, and when Sailor's released from jail, Lula's waiting with open arms and open legs, "hotter than Georgia asphalt" for her snakeskin jacket-wearin' love-muffin. Hysterical and vengeful, Marietta sets her private-eye lover (Harry Dean Stanton) on their trail and contracts with a mobster (J.E. Freeman) to have Sailor rubbed out, as the lust-sodden runaway lovers take off across country on a surreal, violent road trip featuring a rich panoply of memorable characters — like a club-footed Cajun assassin (Grace Zabriskie), a helium-voiced stranger who talks about diseased pigeons (Freddie Jones), a lovely accident victim with a hole in her skull who won't stop looking for her lost purse (Sherilyn Fenn), and the creepy-funny, foul-toothed hired killer Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe). "The whole world's wild at heart and weird on top," Lula tells Sailor — and whether the pair will find a place in the world where they can be together becomes less sure as their road trip turns more macabre with each passing day.

*          *          *

Above all else, David Lynch loves to create bizarre characters. At times it feels as if the entire purpose of Wild At Heart is to fabricate a universe that Lynch could populate with freaks and weirdos — besides the oddities that Sailor and Lula meet along their journey, there are flashbacks as Lula tells her lover about her past, talking of her father's business partner, Uncle Pooch (Marvin Kaplan), who raped her when she was 13 and, more vividly, of her insane cousin Dell (Crispin Glover), who feared black-gloved aliens, wore a Santa suit year-round, and enjoyed putting cockroaches in his underwear. These oddities are fiercely memorable, and they threaten to draw too much attention away from the artfulness of Lynch's story, which weaves bits of lore from The Wizard of Oz (Marietta's likeness to the Wicked Witch, Lula's clicking together of her red high heels, Sailor's redemption by the Good Witch [Sheryl Lee] at film's end) with a wealth of subtle references to filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Jacques Tati, and Akira Kurosawa, all the while allowing Cage to play Sailor as an Elvis-obsessed romantic and Dern to give full reign to depraved innocence and wild-eyed carnality. Lynch's visual sense in Wild At Heart equals that of his two most celebrated films, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, with an attention to detail and an iconic use of color that's awe-inspiring, as he revisits his own favorite motifs (highway asphalt at night, body parts and grotesque decay) while continually reinforcing images specific to the story — blazing fire, lit cigarettes, and car accidents. Wild At Heart is melodramatic, giddily self-aware, painfully stylized, and challenging at every turn — filmmaking as provocation, by a director who seemed to know that the fifteen minutes of fame during which he'd be allowed to do whatever he pleased were fleeting, and therefore chose to throw everything he had at the screen without fear, or compromise.

MGM's DVD release of Wild at Heart is as good as one could hope for — a new fine-grain positive was struck from the original master of the film, and Lynch himself spent about a year overseeing the color timing and the transfer to high definition. It's simply gorgeous — a huge improvement over old video versions of the film (which were horribly murky and muddy looking, especially during darker scenes) and the previous Region 2 disc produced by Universal. The occasional scratch or speck shows up, but frankly they're barely noticeable — this simply is a stunning transfer, crystal clear, sharp, and richly saturated, with amazing contrast and detail. The newly mixed Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is very good, balancing Angelo Badalamenti's moody score (as well as Cage's Elvis songs and tunes by artists like Chris Isaak) with dialogue and occasionally boosted sound effects (gunshots most notably). There's also a lovely handful of extras, including an excellent "making-of" featurette, "Love, Death, Elvis and Oz: The Making of Wild At Heart" (30 min.), featuring new interviews with Lynch, Cage, Dern, Dafoe, Ladd and others involved in the production; "David Lynch — On the DVD," in which the director discusses the work that went into the new transfer; "Dell's Lunch Counter," a collection of brief interview pieces on subjects like Sailor's jacket, the writing of the original novel, Lynch's attention to background detail, and the premiere at Cannes; another interview featurette, "Specific Spontaneity: Focus on David Lynch" (7 min.) on what it's like to work with the director; a featurette from 1990 that was sent to the media as a promotion; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer and TV spots. Keep-case with paperboard slipcase.
—Dawn Taylor

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