There is a language in dreams and a set of rules. That is why, when we’re dreaming, everything, every weird little thing, seems perfectly normal until we wake up. No other director speaks that language or knows those rules better than David Lynch, whose career has been built on being able to take dreams and nightmares and translate them perfectly to film. Wild at Heart, his Palme d’Or-winning 1990 film, is very much a dreamer’s movie. It is the story of two young lovers, Sailor and Lula, who run away from her family to travel across America doing nothing but dancing, screwing, and loving each other. It is the dream of an adolescent who wants nothing more than to meet the love of their life and run away.
Laura Dern plays Lula Fortune, the daughter of Diane Ladd’s terrifying Marietta, and the twenty-year-old lover of Nicholas Cage’s character, Sailor. Lula is hyperactive, sexual, immature, and full of terrible memories. If Wild at Heart is anyone’s dream, then it is hers. After all, what young adult hasn’t wanted a boyfriend who fights for her honour, stops a concert so he can serenade her with Elvis (while the other girls squeal and look on jealously), and who your parents object to so much that they have to hire comic book-ish hitmen to pull the two of you apart? In Sailor, Lula gets a stereotypical teenage girl’s idea of a perfect man. He is full of rebellion and individuality (the snakeskin jacket proves that), but also madly in love with Lula. He is also not like the other men in the movie in that he is not old, infirm, gross, or quacking instead of talking. In fact, there is a running motif that as Lula and Sailor seem to be the only young people in the movie, everyone else – the oldies – are all twisted and weird. They can’t understand the pure, wonderful love shared by Lula and Sailor because they are too out of touch, too disgusting to understand what young love is all about.
Of course, it could also be Sailor’s dream too. It’s only because we get more of Lula’s past that we think it is her dream. We see the aftermath of her father’s business partner raping her and the abortion that follows, and we think that Lula is definitely someone who deserves her dream man. But Sailor is very much the embodiment of what a young adult man might want to be: the centre of attention, the love of a beautiful girl’s life, a rebel (whose crime is sort of understandable), and just about the coolest guy who ever wore a snakeskin jacket.
The first 56 minutes of the movie are the dreams of star-crossed lovers. All they do is party, drink, smoke, share the minutiae of their lives, and have sex. It is a dream world of young lovers with nothing to lose. And then, at minute 57, Sailor makes a confession to Lula and things begin to unravel. No more parties and no more sex for the rest of the movie. What happens then is that subtle thing that has happened to us all when a dream becomes infected with a nightmare and we lose control of what’s happening. From then on it is all car crashes, vomiting, revelations, and Bobby Peru. Bobby, the ex-Marine with tiny teeth played by Willem Dafoe, might be the most repellent character ever put on celluloid. He is disgusting down to the sound of his voice, and for both Lula and Sailor he is a nightmare come to life. By assaulting Lula and leading Sailor back towards a life of crime, he aims to corrupt their dreams and turn their wonderful life on the road into something that would cause you to wake up in the middle of the night in a pool of sweat with a scream dying on your lips.
After Bobby Peru’s hyper-dramatic and highly satisfying demise, we see the dreams wind to a close. Sailor and Lula’s dreams of traveling into the great beyond with their unborn child and nothing but their love are disrupted when Sailor is arrested.
Of course, anyone who has ever had a dream knows that we rarely see the endings of them. We wake up at the good part or just before the monster grabs us from behind. Lynch spares us that disappointment and doesn’t leave us with something half-formed and unresolved. We get to see how the young lovers end up and it is a mix of their dreams. When Sailor told Lula that he was going to walk away, I felt like I was watching the dreams of a foolish young man who sees a child and his young lover six years older and doesn’t see the chance for a happy life and the end of the uncertainty that has plagued him for the movie so far. No, he sees nothing but responsibility and burden. Instead of hanging around and playing house, he does the cool, Man-with-No-Name thing and walks away to have other adventures, leaving Lula behind, her dreams in tatters. That felt like the end of the movie. That felt as though the message of the tale was that young love is fun, but don’t expect it to last. Even love-struck Lula had pointed out earlier in the movie how weird it would be if they loved each other forever. However, following a beating and a visit from the good witch, Sailor realises the mistake he’s making and returns, running across the tops of the cars in a traffic jam in old-school rom-com style. He pulls Lula onto the hood of her and makes her dreams come true by singing “Love Me Tender,” a song he had previously announced he would only sing to his wife. It’s heightened, cheesy, and ridiculous, and it’s also utterly perfect.
The two leads are magnificent in this movie. Both of them have an eccentric, dream-like quality to them as Dern is a larger than life, beautiful, manic image who seems to be on the brink of heartbreak at all times. And Cage is a complete wild man. He is a pure masculine fantasy come to life with an accent so thick you need to microwave it before you can spread it on toast. He channels the King throughout but always slightly askew and exaggerated as though all of Clarence Worley’s Elvis monologues had become sentient. Other than Lynch there is no other director that has the same ability and fluency in dream language to create something like Wild at Heart. Every sequence contains something off-kilter that would make sense in a dream and which, in a movie, makes us uncomfortable and feel off-centre, like we’ve just woken up and are still trying to put all the pieces together. None of it feels weird for the sake of weird though. Lynch builds these incredible, surreal worlds in which every odd thing stands out and fits in perfectly at the same time, to create something that you watch with the feeling in the back of your head that at any moment you’ll wake up and, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, realise it was all a dream.
Featured Image: The Samuel Goldwyn Company