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Wild At Heart

Wild At Heart

By James Arden • March 15th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Propaganda Films

Original release: August 17th, 1990
Running time: 124 minutes

Director: David Lynch
Writers: Barry Gifford (novel), David Lynch (screenplay)

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe, J.E. Freeman, Crispin Glover, Diane Ladd, Harry Dean Stanton

Wild At Heart

During my final year at university, I set myself the task of watching David Lynch’s entire filmography. I told myself it was essay research; a thinly veiled excuse to fully indulge in the surreal landscapes of one of the most iconic American directors of the 20th century. I did actually write an essay, but ironically the film that stuck with me the most was one I didn’t discuss, perhaps because I didn’t feel ready. That film is Wild At Heart. Explosive, brutal, sexual, musical… Lynch’s fiery road movie burned itself onto my memory: a powerful exploration of temptation and thrill-seeking that is still relevant today.

An adaptation of Barry Gifford’s eponymous novel, Wild At Heart follows two passionate young lovers, Lula (Laura Dern) and Sailor (Nicholas Cage), on the run from a world that doesn’t want them to be together. In the infamous first scene, Sailor brutally murders a man who attacks him with a knife; a hitman hired by Lula’s mother, Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd), who doesn’t want her daughter to be with Sailor.

Upon his release from prison, Lula’s waiting for Sailor with his snakeskin jacket, a “symbol of [his] individuality, and [his] belief in personal freedom.” Several intense love-making scenes later, the two decide to break Sailor’s parole and run away to California. Lula’s mother, manipulating her on-off relationship with an impressionable private detective named Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), hires him to track and save Lula. At the same time, Marietta also hires vicious gangster Marcelles Santos (J.E. Freeman) to kill Sailor. Back on the road, Sailor and Lula encounter the deranged, twisted characters that fill a world that is “wild at heart and weird on top.”

Wild at Heart

“Wild at Heart pictures a society on the verge of self-immolation.” For that reason, perhaps Lynch’s film is more relevant today than ever before. Rodley was fully aware of cinema’s navigation towards visceral violence during the nineties following the release of Wild at Heart, and its proximity to real-world destruction: “[Wild at Heart] was symptomatic of a feeling in the country that dramatically expressed itself in, of all places, Tinseltown with the LA rebellion of May 1992.” ~ Chris Rodley, writer and filmmaker

Similarly, I couldn’t help but think of Wild At Heart when watching the London riots on television in August 2011. The causes and contributing factors are still debated to this day, but it seems clear that on some level, for some individuals, it Wild At Heartwas a case of rioting for rioting’s sake. Lynch’s comment on the LA uprising – “everybody got strange” – aptly describes the situation that befell London just over a year ago.

Wild At Heart contains a recurring motif of striking matches and blazing fire; arguably representative of the desire, rage and violence that permeates the film’s landscape. Characters act on impulse; they ignore morality, or perhaps deliberately oppose it, for the rush, the kick, and the ecstasy. Legendary actress Katharine Hepburn once said, “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.” Lula and Sailor embody this thrill of breaking the rules: their whole relationship is based around the fact that it’s forbidden, by the law and Lula’s mother. Willem Dafoe’s deplorable villain, Bobby Peru, exemplifies the darker side of this immoral, impulsive behaviour.


  • Rodley, Chris (Ed.). Lynch On Lynch. London: Faber and Faber Inc., 2005.

In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Peru forcibly grabs Lula when she’s alone and demands she says “f**k me” to him, upon which he’ll leave. She refuses, but Peru doesn’t let go of her. Instead, he repeatedly whispers the phrase in her ear as he sexually assaults her. Lingering, forcing us to watch, Lynch shows Lula slowly relenting until she utters those two words. Not merely repeating Peru’s phrase, Lula has been seduced to the point of wanting it – she gives in to the excitement, the desire, knowing it’s wrong. Peru suddenly, violently, pulls away and leaves.

Thinking back to this powerful scene while watching the London riots in 2011, I couldn’t help but wonder – is there the temptation in all of us to do something wicked and dangerous, purely for the thrill?

James Arden

James Arden

James is a recent English Literature graduate from the University of York. During his time at university he took as many film-related modules as possible, balancing his studies of Dickens and Shakespeare with healthy doses of David Lynch and Orson Welles. He’s drawn to auteuristic and controversial filmmakers; a far-reaching interest that extends from the colourful, retroistic aesthetics of Wes Anderson to the disturbing yet engaging films of Lars von Trier. Somewhere inbetween lies a love for Polanski, Kubrick and P.T. Anderson.

James is also a filmmaker and film journalist. Follow his work on his website and follow him on Twitter @jnarden.

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