It’s been 20 years since David Lynch gave us Nic Cage crooning to speed metal and that super creepy smile
It goes without saying, David Lynch’s love stories are the weirdest love stories. Who else would make a movie that mixes speed metal with Chris Isaak, features allusions to The Wizard of Oz, and spotlights a snakeskin jacket-clad Nic Cage as an Elvis obsessive who sounds more like Johnny Bravo than The King? That’s right – no one. In Lynch’s own words, Wild At Heart is “a love story that barrels along down a strange highway through the twisted modern world” – the emphasis, of course, being on the strange.
Lynch’s very name is synonymous with all things strange and surreal. We even have an eponym that encapsulates what he does best: Lynchian. Situated in the general realm of WTF, a Lynchian scene blends the macabre with the mundane with often bleakly comic results. 1990’s Wild At Heart, which turns 20 this week, follows two lovers on the run, chain-smoking their way down to New Orleans in order to escape the cruel clutches of the girl’s mum, is crammed with those WTF moments.
SAILOR SINGS ELVIS’ “LOVE ME” – WITH THE HELP OF SPEED METAL BAND POWERMAD
When lovers Lula and Sailor go dancing at The Hurricane, their choice music is the speed metal band Powermad and their choice dance moves are karate kicks and chops. So far, so weird. But what really makes this scene Lynchian is when Sailor grabs the mic and starts to sing Elvis’ “Love Me”. The band plays it too (although they’re clearly not playing it) and we hear the screams of adoring fangirls in the audience. It’s all a bit disjointed and dreamlike. No one responds as they would in reality. Later, Lula indignantly asks Sailor, “Why didn’t you play me ‘Love Me Tender’?’”
AN OLD MAN AT A BAR IN NEW ORLEANS QUACKS
That’s right, a man quacks as if his mouth had been replaced with a kazoo. In one of the film’s most bizarre scenes, an old man approaches Sailor and Lula at a bar, gives them a look that says “Hey guys, how’s it going?” and then, well, and then he quacks. He quacks once more and then proceeds to talk nonsense in a voice that sounds like he’s just inhaled a load of helium: “Pigeons... spread diseases and mess up the place.” Are they weirded out? No. Is their look one of “who the hell is this drunk old man and why is he talking gibberish?” No. Their look, unlike ours, is one of “this guy is totally normal”. 100% Lynch.
LULA’S MUM GOES OVERBOARD WITH HER LIPSTICK
This is possibly the only scene in the history of cinema where someone self-harms with a lipstick. Dressed up like a 12-year-old girl, Lula’s mum takes her lippy, looks in the mirror, and violently goes to town on her wrist. A few scenes later, Lynch cuts back to the woman, her whole face smeared in Technicolor red lipstick, accompanied by the sound of abrasive horns as if something truly horrific had just happened. Pure Lynch.
JACK NANCE GIVES NIC CAGE AND LAURA DERN A LESSON IN SEMIOTICS
Lynch regular Jack Nance (the guy from Eraserhead) turns up here as wide-eyed cowboy Pete. He has some words for the lovelorn couple. And because this is a Lynch film, those words make 100% sense in relation to the story. Just kidding. They make zero sense. “My dog barks some. Mentally, you picture my dog, but I have not told you the type of dog which I have. Perhaps you might even picture Toto from The Wizard of Oz, but I can tell you my dog is always with me... BARK!” Nance’s line amounts to a basic lesson in semiotics, breaking down the word dog as a signifier, but its delivery is unsettling in a Frank Booth-y kind of way – half-joking, half-deadly serious.
ALL THOSE CLOSE-UPS OF FLAMES
Close-ups of flames punctuate most of Lynch’s films. He’s obsessed with them. We saw flames in Blue Velvet, flames in Lost Highway, and here in Wild At Heart there are many, many flames. In fact, in total, I counted nine close-ups of flames. Heck, the film’s opening credits play out against a backdrop of flames. Flames are the white-hot centre of #Lynchian. Flames, flames, flames – the word has lost all meaning.
NIC CAGE APPEARS IN A CRYSTAL BALL
There are allusions to The Wizard of Oz throughout Wild At Heart (the aforementioned Toto reference for one), but the most overt, most bizarre reference is when Lynch shows us a close-up of a crystal ball, presumably held by the Wicked Witch of this story, Lula’s mum. Nic Cage appears in it but nothing really happens – it’s the kind of OTT image that only Lynch can get away with. We see the ball twice in the film yet its only purpose seems to emphasize the witchiness of Lula’s mum. And that it does.
‘JINGLE DELL’ DRESSES UP AS SANTA CLAUS ALL YEAR ROUND
Jingle Dell is Lula’s cousin. They call him that, she says, because he wanted Christmas to last all year long; Dell even sports a Santa Claus costume during summer. Obviously it gets weirder. “Dell said that trust and the spirit of Christmas was destroyed by ideas being controlled by aliens wearing black gloves.” Make of that what you will. Lula’s story is dressed up as some kind of allegory (she concludes: “Aunt Rootie told him that the alien wearing the gloves was him and him alone”) but what adds to its surreal genius is the casting of Crispin Glover as Dell. Glover is best known for playing George McFly in Back to the Future and is well accustomed to oozing strange and goofy.
WILLEM DAFOE BLOWS HIS HEAD OFF AND IT’S KIND OF FUNNY
Up there with the best head explosions of all time (the best being in Cronenberg’s Scanners) is Willem Dafoe’s head popping off and splatting against the wall. It’s one of many disconcerting LOLs the film dishes up. The thing that makes it darkly comic (read: Lynchian) is the stocking he’s wearing over his head. When his head shoots up into the air it looks like a facehugger from Alien, its tail flapping in the wind, and when it splats on the wall the sound and static framing is gloriously deadpan.
THREE LARGE LADIES DANCE AWKWARDLY IN THE TRAILER PARK
Here’s a scene no one saw coming. At the trailer park, while the lovers are smoking with the cowboys, three rather large, scantily clad ladies enter the frame. They’re prancing around, entertaining the guests. Like the woman in Blue Velvet who awkwardly dances alone on the roof of Frank Booth’s car, their moves aren’t the most natural. In a word, they’re Lynchian.
LULA’S MUM APPEARS ON A BROOMSTICK ALONGSIDE THE COUPLE’S CAR
At night, in full witch garb, Lula’s mum appears alongside the lovers’ car, broomstick between her legs, while Chris Isaak plays on the radio. Of course, she’s not actually there – Dern is imagining the Wicked Witch – but we see it too and we hear her cackle, echoing in the darkness of another Lynchian nightmare.