|By Joshua Zyber
August 9, 2000
“It’s just shocking sometimes, when things aren’t the
way you thought they were.”
Despite being an enormous fan of David Lynch’s other works, I have always had a difficult time making sense of Wild at Heart. Upon first watching it, I instantly hated it. Yet there was something which kept bringing me back, wanting to like it. So I gave it several more viewings, disliking the film a little bit less with each one. By now I’ve seen the film a dozen times and I don’t think I’ve ever had the same reaction twice. My most recent analysis was that the first half of the film is an ungainly mess, but that the second half picks up sufficiently to make watching it worthwhile.
“The way your head works is God’s own private mystery.”
The story follows the exploits of Sailor and Lula, a pair of white trash kids trying to break free of their pasts and start a new life together. Lula’s mother isn’t so keen on the idea of them shacking up, unfortunately, and sends some shady characters to track them down. As in many of the road movies this picture is trying to emulate, the journey takes a tour halfway across the country through a variety of different situations and unique experiences, all flavored with Lynch’s trademark surreal humor.
So what exactly is wrong with the movie? That is a difficult question indeed. Wild at Heart is an indulgent film, made by an artist trying to live up to his reputation for ‘weird’ and ‘quirky’ material. It certainly fits those descriptions, but almost desperately so, piling on stranger and stranger affectations until it implodes under its own weight. Much of the film is awkwardly constructed. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, often directly contradicting one another (Lula tells Sailor that her mother never found out that she was raped, and then we immediately cut to a flashback of her mother walking in on exactly that). There are a number of tangential subplots that have no correlation to the actual story and serve no purpose other than to increase the weirdness factor. Several pointless cameo appearances by Lynch regulars (Freddie Jones, Jack Nance, etc.) hardly help matters, making parts of the film play like a bad in-joke that only Lynch finds amusing. The performances are often erratic, especially Diane Ladd’s over-the-top wacko mother. Many scenes cut in mid-conversation, as if Lynch could not find a good place to put the scene but didn’t want to lose it. There is a running Wizard of Oz theme that is quite overdone and becomes quickly annoying. Many of the important plot turns are illogical (the couple drives out of the way to rural Texas so that Sailor can have a conversation with an old acquaintance, when a simple phone call would have sufficed). Worst of all, the two lead characters are so ignorant that it is difficult to sympathize with their plight.
The movie inexplicably won the Palme d'Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, against the protestations of jury-member and outspoken Lynch-hater Roger Ebert. However, despite this dubious honor and a release date at the height of Lynch's Twin Peaks popularity, the film was a commercial failure in the United States, as most of his films have been.
That being said, no Lynch film is completely without merit. The film is boldly stylized with vivid colors, striking imagery, and beautifully symmetrical widescreen composition. Lynch is a filmmaker who can bring the textures of smoke, lipstick, flies on vomit, or nylon stretched over a human face all to memorable life. Both J.E. Freeman and Willem Defoe give suitably creepy performances. Much of the dialogue is terrific (“One thing about surviving in Big Tuna, you gotta have an active sense of humor.”). There are several dazzlingly moody set-pieces, culminating in Sherilyn Fenn’s appearance as a car crash victim slowly dying while Sailor and Lula stand helplessly by. Her scene is wrenchingly powerful, and brings the film some much-needed emotional resonance. By the time the story ambles lackadaisically into its caper plot in the second half, the movie picks up enough steam to build to a fabulous shootout finale complete with a visual reference to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.
As if the movie itself weren’t enough of a mixed bag, the laserdisc edition from Image Entertainment is almost a total disaster. It’s one redeeming quality is that it is fully letterboxed to the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, despite the lack of any indication to this effect on the disc jacket. The film-to-video transfer is terrible. The image on Side 1 is rampantly grainy, oversaturated, and flooded with signal noise during the many periods of intense color. Side 2 looks a little more stable, but is also considerably softer. Similar to their equally lousy laserdisc edition of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Side 3 is presented in CAV and looks fairly decent. Given that style is the one attribute this film really has going for it, this laserdisc sucks the life out of the original photography and nearly kills the entire experience. If your laserdisc player and/or television have a considerable amount of noise reduction filtering in use, the disc is watchable, but without such advanced signal processing it is painful to sit through. Remarkably, both side breaks are very well chosen and are barely disruptive at all. The audio is clear and delivers the film’s interesting sound design well enough, but it is lacking in punch and often sounds thin.
Columbia Video also released the film on laserdisc in Japan. The disc comes in a beautiful gatefold jacket that completely dispenses with the hideous smeary artwork used on the North American release (see below). The picture transfer, unfortunately, is even worse. Although less noisy, the image is overly contrasted, a bit faded, and has the appearance of a used theatrical print. Colors are poorly saturated and often seem a shade or two removed from accuracy. It's biggest crime is in the choice of letterboxed aspect ratio. The opening credit sequence and first shot of the film actually appear wider than the domestic edition, with slightly more room around the on-screen titles. After the first shot, however, the film abruptly cuts to a narrower ratio in the vicinity of 2.0:1. The essense of the composition remains but the picture is visibly cropped in many instances. The sign above Sailor's head as he leaves prison, for example, now reads: "E DEE CORRECTIONAL INSTITUT". The disc also has Japanese subtitles that appear in the picture, rather than in the lower letterbox bar.
This Japanese edition is worth purchasing for only two reasons. The primary appeal is the jacket art, which shows a respect for David Lynch comparable to the many other excellent Japanese laserdisc releases for his films. Secondly, of notable interest is the fact that the notorious shotgun death at the end of the movie appears completely uncensored on this release. Lynch added an optical smoke effect to this scene for the American theatrical release in order to appease the MPAA and secure an 'R' rating for the film. The foreign release prints, one of which was used for the master to this laserdisc, do not have any smoke obscuring the gore. Ironically, the scene works much better with the smoke in place. With a clear view of the image, the prosthetic looks rather fake. The smoke hides enough of this to make the effect more convincing, and also adds an interesting texture to the image keeping with the fire and smoking motifs running through the film.
To date, there are absolutely no decent home-video presentations for Wild at Heart. The American VHS tape has workable colors, but is hopelessly cropped to 1.33:1. There is a DVD available in Japan, but it has apparently been mastered from the same partially letterboxed transfer as the Japanese laserdisc. Around 1996, Elite Entertainment secured the rights to release a remastered laserdisc in the U.S. that would supposedly restore 20 minutes of cut footage to the film and would feature an audio commentary by David Lynch himself. Sadly, Lynch repeatedly stalled his involvement with the project (much as he had previously done with Universal’s attempt to assemble a Signature Collection edition of Dune) until Elite’s rights had lapsed and the American laserdisc market collapsed in on itself. Anchor Bay Entertainment was later set to release a DVD edition of the theatrical cut, but also let their rights lapse. Currently, there are no plans by any studio to remaster the title.
Wild at Heart may be David Lynch’s weakest film, but it is undeserving of such a sad state of affairs. Even the worst of Lynch’s projects is more interesting than the majority of films cranked out on the Hollywood assembly line.
MGM Home Entertainment finally released a beautiful new
remaster for the film, supervised by David Lynch, in December of 2004.
A review of that disc is available on DVDFile.
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Japanese disc jacket inner gatefold spread
Japanese disc jacket back
U.S. disc jacket front
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