Even the title is a letdown, somehow. At this point, calling a David Lynch film Wild at Heart seems almost redundant. What has always been so seductive about Lynch’s ”wildness” — especially in Eraserhead and his 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet — is that it doesn’t announce itself. It’s just there, as though the director had tapped his most gorgeous and threatening fantasies and then brought them, raw and quivering, onto the screen, transformed into rhapsodic surrealist melodrama.

Wild at Heart is the first Lynch movie that could be accused of wearing its weirdness on its sleeve. From the joltingly ugly opening sequence, in which rebel without a cause Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) defeats an attacker by smashing the guy’s head against a marble floor until his squishy red brains are dripping out the back, you can feel Lynch trying to unsettle you — and, with equal calculation, chortling at his own bad-boy games.

Lynch, along with Martin Scorsese, is the most exciting filmmaker of his generation. Yet coming off that sensationally demented TV soaper Twin Peaks, he seems torn between making a mod genre picture — a scabrous and bloody Southern Gothic road comedy — and playing avant-garde show-off. The result is a sluggish, pretentious mess.

It’s hard to imagine Wild at Heart appealing to a mass audience, yet I’m not sure it’s going to connect with David Lynch cultists, either. A lurid hodgepodge of the ”subversive” and the secondhand, the movie lacks the primal pop pleasures of Lynch’s best work. It’s a strangely dour experience, one that combines moments of rank unpleasantness (Lynch lingers over shots of flies buzzing around a puddle of dried vomit) with surprisingly lackluster jokey allusions, including a belabored series of references to The Wizard of Oz. In each case, Lynch’s instincts seem off.

Cage’s Sailor is a tough-stud ex-con who speaks in a cornball imitation of Elvis Presley’s breathy drone and wears a spectacularly vulgar snakeskin jacket, which he describes as ”a symbol of mah personal freedom.” His girlfriend, 20-year-old Lula (Laura Dern), is a hot-and-bothered blond who loves Sailor because (why else?) he’s bad. But Lula’s mother (Diane Ladd), an embittered lush, is determined to keep these two apart. She doesn’t want her little girl hanging out with such disreputable company. Besides, she has the hots for Sailor herself.

Far more than Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart unfolds in a ’50s-flavored world of forbidden love and vengeful puritanism. Yet there’s something rinky-dink about the whole setup. What is David Lynch — the director who in Blue Velvet gave us Dean Stockwell lip-synching to Roy Orbison’s ”In Dreams” like some effeminate imp from Mars — doing with a stock-delinquent hero who idolizes Elvis? Cage acts with his usual never-a-dull-moment baroque floridity, but the trouble with having this flaky, high-camp hood at the center of the movie is that there’s no innocent ”normality” for Lynch to play off. Cage, who mocks the very idea of soulfulness, is funny but weightless; he’s too knowingly on Lynch’s wavelength. Wild at Heart features a number of other performers who carry their hip credentials on to the screen with them (Harry Dean Stanton, Crispin Glover, John Lurie). Lynch has nothing new to discover in these people. He uses them for their ready-made aura.

As Sailor and Lula head south, pursued by a private detective and then a mobster (both of whom have been enlisted by Lula’s mom), Lynch captures the druggy obsessiveness of a young love affair, the sensation of being happily drowned in erotic pleasure. His sex scenes are free of the usual ”steamy” cliches; when Sailor and Lula are in bed, they actually move. Laura Dern, an actress who puts nothing between her emotions and the audience, makes us believe in the purity of her feeling for Sailor. She plays Lula as a spunky daredevil in black-leather bras; no one in contemporary movies can invest the words ”I love you” with so much feverish yearning.

Outside their motel-room bliss, though, Lynch can’t sustain a mood. He’s constantly introducing new characters (there are way too many of them), and the movie feels arbitrary and disjointed. Instead of pace and atmosphere, Wild at Heart has Unifying Motifs. The most prominent of these is fire. Lula’s father apparently committed suicide by setting himself aflame. Lynch keeps flashing back to this epochal event, and he throws in countless giant close-ups of match heads igniting in slow motion. He did this sort of thing once or twice in Blue Velvet, too, but there he was making a subversive point: Fire — raw passion — was equated with the dark lure of sadomasochistic sex. Here, aside from alluding to the death of Lula’s father, fire just means passion. Bein’ wild at heart.

Late in the movie, Willem Dafoe shows up as the third and most evil of Sailor and Lula’s tormentors, the ”black angel” Bobby Peru. Outfitted with fake gums and a pencil mustache, Dafoe bears an eerie resemblance to filmmaker John Waters, and he proves a master of leering, fish-faced villainy; the scene in which he terrorizes Lula in her motel room has a teasing power. Lula’s fear and revulsion melt into ambiguous desire, and slowly, as Bobby keeps whispering his scurrilous demand, we sink into the dark side along with her. But that’s the only moment when Wild at Heart attains that quintessentially Lynch-like quality — the rapturous and terrifying aura of dreams. C-

Wild at Heart
  • Movie
  • 124 minutes