There’s no adequate way to convey the oddball hilarity of Wild at Heart. Merely describing the characters and their indelibly peculiar behavior has the effect of reducing the film to a showcase of quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake. This stuff has to be seen to be believed. The plot is presented as a crime thriller, but perhaps more than any other example of the genre, the mechanics are entirely secondary to the minutiae. Sailor and Lula are deeply, madly, passionately in love (their ultra-vigorous sex scenes speak for themselves). Marietta doesn’t want Sailor with her daughter. Sailor knows family secrets that she doesn’t want Lula discovering. In order to keep them apart, Marietta enlists the help of her benign P.I. boyfriend Johnnie (Harry Dean Stanton, playing straight man to the motley crew of weirdos) and—unbeknownst to Johnnie—the truly dangerous Marcellus Santos (J.E. Freeman).
After Sailor is released from Pee Dee Correctional Institution (he was found guilty of manslaughter after an utterly brutal, bare-handed killing of a man sicced on him by Marietta), Wild at Heart becomes a road movie. The whole “lovers on the lam” cliché is routinely turned on its head, not so much by plot twists but rather by the unexpected actions and utterances of its characters. Sailor’s fixation on his snakeskin jacket (“A symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom”) only begins to scratch the surface. Lula is, in her naïve way, surprisingly introspective as she attempts to makes sense out of her bizarre background (which includes sexual abuse, a viciously controlling mother, a mysteriously deceased father, and a cousin with a cockroach fixation). Yet Sailor is repeatedly dismissive of her attempts at self-reflection (“The way your head works is God's own private mystery,” he muses) while ineffectually trying to fill a quasi father-figure role.
By the time the pair winds up in Big Tuna, Texas, Marietta’s dealings with the criminal underworld have spiraled out of control. None of it is especially interesting when taken at face value, which is understandably off-putting to anyone seeking a straightforward plot. Lynch based his screenplay on Barry Gifford’s novel of the same name, yet his interest lies unwaveringly in the unconventional ways his characters relate to each other. The third act is dominated by Dafoe’s inimitable Bobby Peru, a vision of unrepentant evil that is incongruously as funny as any purely comedic creation could be. He’s the flipside of Sailor and (especially) Lula’s purity and innocence (relatively though it may be, considering neither is a babe in the woods by any means). Bobby’s attempted seduction of Lula (he drops by her and Sailor’s fleabag motel room, ostensibly to use the restroom) is spellbinding because, just like Lula herself, we can’t fully get a bead on whether he’s being serious or not.
If there’s a weak link in all the madness, it’s the heavy-handed Wizard of Oz allusions. Marietta is the Wicked Witch, Lula wants to click her heels to escape Big Tuna, and we even get an appearance by Glinda the Good Witch (Sheryl Lee, Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks). I guess it’s almost endearing how fully committed Lynch is to sprinkling in countless Oz references, but with such a wealth of striking, unique ideas the running tribute is almost a bit silly. Lynch packs nearly every frame with something surprising and his cast is game as can be (Ladd was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Dafoe was criminally snubbed). It may not all add up to an appreciable emotional response (Wild at Heart is a mystery in which the solution is confusing and unsatisfying, a romance in which we question whether the central couple is truly suited for each other, and a comedy marked by forays into very disturbing territory), but the journey is well worth taking.
Wild at Heart arrives on Blu-ray with a so-so transfer apparently struck from the same master used for the previous DVD. Black and white debris flecks pop up a little too frequently. The image doesn’t boast the same depth and clarity that a brand new transfer might’ve provided. Frederick Elmes cinematography is such a feast for the eyes it’s a little disappointing this disc doesn’t look better. That said it is still a decent upgrade from the old DVD. Much more exciting is the DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix, which provides absolutely booming bottom end, especially during numerous moments punctuated by a recurring heavy metal instrumental. There’s also a DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. Although nowhere near as full-bodied as the 5.1, it actually has slightly better prioritized dialogue (which occasionally seemed to fight a losing battle with the aggressive music and effects of the 5.1).
Aside from the isolated music and effects track and film historian Julie Kirgo’s customary booklet essay, all the extras on Twilight Time’s Wild at Heart have been carried over from the previous DVD. The most substantial of these is “Love, Death, Elvis, and Oz,” a half-hour ‘making of’ piece. “Dell’s Lunch Counter” contains about 20 minutes of additional cast and crew interviews. “Specific Spontaneity: Focus on David Lynch” runs seven minutes, as does the original EPK featurette. Only serving to rub salt in the wounds of those wishing a brand new restoration had been provided by MGM, we can revisit “David Lynch on the DVD.” There are also a few trailers and TV spots.
Wild at Heart is currently out of print on DVD. With only 3,000 copies of the Twilight Time Blu-ray available, the time is now to swing over to Screen Archives to order a copy while supplies last.