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Uncaged - Wild at Heart (1990)

This year, I am going to try to get through the whole oeuvre of Nicolas Cage because my fascination with this man and his contradictions is endless. God help me.

Wild at Heart (1960)

When I first saw this film, I was relatively new to David Lynch and serious, critical movie-watching in general, and I did not know what the hell to make of this. The film starts off with extreme violence from Nicolas Cage’s Sailor as he fends off a would-be murderer. His vigorous self-defense ends up killing his assailant, and it also lands him in prison for manslaughter. I’m not sure I really got past that first extreme moment because it set expectations for a film that decidedly did not go the way I thought it would...until it did. I guess I was expecting Oliver Stone or Quentin Tarantino in terms of endless, stylized violence and lurid sensationalism, but I ended up with...David Lynch.

On this revisit, I find this film quite funny in a hysterically dark way. The performances are all dialed up to eleven with little exception. It has to be when Cage is literally channeling Elvis and Laura Dern is channeling Marilyn Monroe. Diane Ladd plays what would have been an insulting stereotype of a shrill mother-in-law to such a hilt that it becomes a masterpiece of comic overacting. The arch dialogue is a parody of teen slang and witticisms with its colorful metaphors and Beatnik phrasing.

In a strange way, this movie has a conservative heart. The Wizard of Oz is the major underpinning for most of this movie with Sailor even receiving a visit from Glinda the Good Witch towards the end of the movie. Of course, that earnest tale about the sanctity of good homespun values such as the importance of a stable family is seriously perverted in this movie. Lula’s mom comes onto Sailor, and she is motivated into a Clytemnestra-type rage as she tries to have Sailor killed by hiring not one, but two, assassins. Yet the original story ended with Sailor breaking up with Lula because she’s stable now and has a son, and his presence has really only caused trouble for her. Lynch reverses this ending with the aforementioned big, pink deus ex machina, but much of the movie still feels like it’s aiming for a suspiciously American-dream like scenario ending for the couple.

I think this film actually reveals much more about Lynch’s obsessions and hang-ups than his other films do. Lynch clearly loves his American pop culture, but he’s also fully aware of the darkness that it often conceals or even possibly encourages. On this note, I was surprised to see a seemingly on-the-nose commentary about America’s obsession with tragedy porn when Lula tries to find some music on the radio to listen to while she’s driving.

And I know this is supposed to be a series on Nicolas Cage, but this movie half convinced me that I need to do a series on Laura Dern. She matches Cage’s energy and intensity, and I think it’s mostly because of her that you believe their relationship. She commits so much to the part that, frankly, I think she kind of leaves Cage in the dust. She’s so intense that she could have played both her part and Cage’s part, and I wouldn’t have blinked an eye. Wild at Heart really supports the theory that Cage does best when he is around actors who are willing to play at his level of intensity.

 

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