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Sep 15, 2008

CAGEFEST: The Nic Cage Film Festival - Wild at Heart

CAGEFEST knows not the bounds of space and time. For previous entries, click here.

J.D. of Radiator Heaven doesn't post much, but when he does, you best pay attention. The Lynch fan (um, I'm guessing from his blog's title, a shout-out to Eraserhead) gives in-depth analysis on a wide variety of films, from classics like Fletch to current DVD recommendations, and seems to participate in at least one blog-a-thon a month - like this one, for example. Here, he gives Lynch a little more love.

Remember when Nicolas Cage wasn’t a sell-out? His sell by date was 1995 with Leaving Las Vegas and he’s still forcing the world to swill down his sour-ass milk. Let’s go back to a more innocent time when Cage was still capable of exciting, unhinged performances like the one he delivered in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), an unexpectedly explosive adaptation of Barry Gifford’s unadorned novel, which went on to win the coveted Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. At its core, Lynch’s film is a passionate love story between a couple whose love for each other remains constant despite all of the obstacles that life throws at them, including a psychotically over-protective mother, a dentally-challenged psychopath, and a grizzled rocket scientist.

Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) are young lovers on the run from her mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd). Sailor has jumped parole (after serving time for manslaughter) and takes off with Lula for sunny California. This doesn’t sit too well with Lula’s mom who sends her boyfriend, (and private investigator), and, unbeknownst to him, her lover, (and ruthless gangster) on the trail of the young lovers.

Cage plays Sailor as an instantly iconic figure, where pointing an accusing finger at Marietta (after killing a man with his bare hands no less) is akin to a declaration of war. Sailor, like many of the characters in this film, is larger than life with his snakeskin jacket credo (“This is a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom!”), his unorthodox style of dancing (involving martial arts kicks and punches), and his habit of singing Elvis Presley songs to Lula in public. Cage not only affects an Elvis-like drawl but also sings two songs made famous by the King.

At this point in his career, Cage gravitated to oddball roles like this (Vampire’s Kiss anyone?). There is a show-stopping moment where Sailor and Lula go see speed metal band Powermad at a nightclub and a guy dances too close to her. Sailor gets the band to stop in mid-song and orders the man to apologize. Naturally, he refuses and Sailor delivers a well-deserved smackdown to the hapless guy. As if that wasn’t cool enough, he then instructs Powermad to back him on a note perfect rendition of “Love Me” while the women in the audience scream in adoration in surreal slow motion like something out of a dream. Cage not only pulls off this performance but makes it look good. It is also an important scene in that it demonstrates Sailor’s love for Lula and his willingness to back it up with action.

Wild at Heart is arguably one of the most romantic characters that Cage has ever portrayed. While most people remember the actor’s wild antics in this film, he also displays a tender, sensitive side when he’s alone with Dern. There is real chemistry between these two actors which is crucial as their characters are supposed to be deeply in love. Cage also demonstrated his ability to tap into the equally idiosyncratic sensibility of David Lynch at a time when the filmmaker was a pop culture darling thanks to the Twin Peaks television series. The result is one of the most intense, incendiary films in both of their careers.

Lawrence Sinclair (aka Jose aka JMan), meanwhile, is nothing if not prolific, having put up over 200 posts in less than two months at his new blog, 1,000 DVDs To See (while also maintaining roughly 75 other blogs, including World's Best Films, his other movie blog). But he's also a great sport; Jose originally submitted a few other "Cage positions" for this festival, including a PRO ("lukewarm") for Wild at Heart, but was nice enough to watch it again with a critical eye to give it a CON, as there were no other takers for this position. He's done yeoman's work here.

"Lynched in Limbo"

Ironically, the film starts in Cape Fear, "somewhere on the coast of South Carolina". Mother from hell Diane Ladd (Dern’s real mother) gets her boyfriend to go after Cage with a knife, who beats him to death, picks him up to throw him and the guys legs are still walking. "Hey, let’s do another take, his brains are hanging out already; second that.. it’s lunchtime". Laura Dern (totally hot eye candy here) plays "Lula", Cage "Sailor", but he likes to call Lula "Peanut", as in "rockin good news, Peanut!". Well, it ain’t rockin till Sailor does some time for excessive self-defense.

When he gets out, Lula greets him with his snakeskin jacket. "This here jacket represents my individuality and my belief in personal freedom". They take off together, and we get to hear repartee like this:

Lula: "One of these days that ole sun is gonna come up and burn a hole clean through the planet like an electrical x-ray."

Sailor: "That’ll never happen, not in our lifetime… by then they’ll be driving Buicks to the moon."
Unfortunately, Cage delivers most of his lines like a stoned Elvis, he seems unusually uninvolved with this part, unlike some others where he seems perhaps too involved (National Treasure).

The mother gets boyfriend Harry Dean Stanton to go after them first, then she hires a hit man as well to go take out Sailor and bring her daughter back. Only this hit man, Santos, hates Stanton as well and figures getting to kill him is icing.

Much of the story is told in flashback, which disrupts the continuity, especially since we’re constantly flashing to the same background scene, the manslaughter one. In between those, we get to see languid conversations while they smoke, gratuitous shots of Dern topless, Cage’s Elvis impersonation at a live punk club no less, singing "Please Love Me", complete with fake crowd screaming (why this odd effect I wonder?). Sailor tells Lula, "The way your head works is God’s own private mystery."Lula says, "You remind me of my daddy. Mama told me he liked skinny girls whose breasts stood up and said hello." She also tells him how her dad poured kerosene all over himself and set himself on fire. Yep, typical David Lynch comedy, and typical bedroom banter.

The film becomes a road film, as the couple heads to New Orleans, but it has more style than pace or story. For a crime film it kinda oozes along, but it’s Dern that does most of the oozing, not Cage, he just kind of acts like he’s just hanging out. Lynch throws in some assorted freaks and "trailer trash", as usual, but he doesn’t seem to really know how to use them.

Wild has some Blue Velvet touches, but this time instead of Rossellini singing, it’s a huge blues singer in New Orleans in a blue sequined dress with red hair. Then we get more hot love talk:

Lula: "Sailor, you got me hotter’n Georgia asphalt"
Sailor: "Ok, but go easy on me baby, tomorrow we got a lot of driving to do."

There’s a mysterious car wreck scene in the desert that Lula and Sailor come across, with several bodies, with Sherilyn Fenn running around with a severe head wound, and dies in front of them. I think at this point I was wondering if this was a comedy, or just David Lynch. Several times this film wavers between the light-hearted (wild punk dancing beside the highway) and supreme darkness, almost as if he couldn’t decide himself how serious this. In this regard, Lynch failed to capture the essence of the Barry Gilford novel, which was definitely lighter than this film.

Eventually the road trip ends in hell on earth: Greater Tuna, Texas. There we run into an assortment of trash at a motor court, headed by Willem Dafoe, with the ugliest teeth outside of Austin Powers. We also are introduced to a unibrowed Isabella Rossellini, almost hard to recognize in her blonde wig, but the unibrow gave it away. Several times in the film we are almost introduced to the song "Blue Velvet", which of course Isabella sang in that film, but each time Lynch changes at the last instant and we never get the velvet. The characters, especially Laura Dern, are also referencing Oz quite often, but we never get that either, all we get is Greater Tuna.

In Greater Tuna we have a more botched bank robbery than the Coen Bros put into Raising Arizona even, a guard’s hand gets shot off and before he can retrieve it ("they sew it back on, it’ll work almost good as new") a dog is carrying it away; Dafoe meets with the wrong end of his shotgun, and Sailor is being held to the ground by law enforcement. Aw, shucks… boys, "treat me right", it’s off to the can again. The epilogue is five years later when Lula, with little Sailor Jr. in tow, picks him up at the railroad "yard". Guess Lynch couldn’t find a real depot. A "real nuclear family unit", from hell or Greater Tuna, or now South Carolina, wherever trash is allowed outside.

Lynch got lost somewhere on Route 66, and ended up in limbo, and we ended up there with him. Not a comedy, not a drama either, just a road film with Nicholas Cage sleep-walk.. er, sleep-driving through a nightmarish landscape we are forced to share with him. Unfortunately we don’t also get to share a naked Laura Dern, but at least Lynch got her naked onscreen as much as he could, otherwise this film would be very hard to look at.

As Lula said, "This whole world is wild at heart, and weird on top." Wisdom for the ages, you bet…

3 people have chosen wisely: on "CAGEFEST: The Nic Cage Film Festival - Wild at Heart"

Farzan said...

Interesting insight. I use to like Cage and enjoyed most of his movies, but now I just dont feel the same way about him. Maybe its because of how Ghost Rider sucked that made me think twice about his movies of choice he picks

Piper said...

Good points on the Pro. Cage once did interesting movies. And this is definitely one of them.

I shot in the same building of this opening scene. It's not in Cape Fear. It's in Los Angeles in an old Moose Lodge type building. Same building with the bathroom scene involving Tim Roth from Reservoir Dogs.

But I digress.

Wild At Heart is a delightful mess filled with weird and crazy and powerful images. Only Lynch can pull energy from a single shot. The retelling of the fire and the shot of the broken glass with the fire burning behind is a disturbing image to me.

And Nic Cage is in his element here. Lynch takes all of Cage's awkward traits and uses them to his advantage.

Time will morph movies to another place and I don't know what movies will look like in a dozen years or so, but this movie will still be stuck to your ribs.

J.D. said...

Yeah, this film even gets slammed by some Lynch fans as one of his lesser works but I love it (obviously). It seems like Lynch and everyone involved is having fun in this film getting their freak on and I have always felt it to be one of his loosest, most freewheeling films.