Though Wild at Heart (1990) is unusually campy for David Lynch’s style, it shows many examples of his auteur through its use of the gothic noir, “visual and aural effects to evoke a mood of dis-ease”, and the “myth of the lost romantic”. Lynch intertwines all of these ideas to achieve his signature dreamlike film with a dash of self awareness adding a degree of humor that is not so prevalent in his other works.
The story of Lula and Sailor is intensely romantic while deeply grotesque and horrific. The love between the two characters is undeniable. Many of the scenes take place with the two of them in bed either making love or talking to each other intimately about their lives and feelings. They are not in classic romantic settings, but minimal more dreary surroundings. When they are not finding solace in their cheap hotel rooms they are either on the road or out on the town in some dark dive bar with bleak looking characters. The film alternates between scenes of the lovers and scenes of Marietta, Lula’s mother, scheming to find her daughter and have Sailor killed. Through the scenes involving Marietta we see the horror side of the film. Though Marietta herself is the predominant villain she brings in more physically obvious grotesque characters in an attempt to fulfill her plan. When she brings in Santos to help her find the couple on the run a slew of gritty characters come along with him. The assassin Juana Durango has a gimp leg, disheveled short blonde hair, a slight unibrow, and unnerving bug eyes. Her physical appearance, along with sadistic psychotic nature, makes her one the most frightening of all. The only character whose monstrousness is comparable to that of Juana Durango is Bobby Peru. His wide protruding mouth filled with brown nubs for teeth go along well with his malevolence to create a disturbing character. These ideas of intense romance and horrific characters along with their extremely melodramatic display helps the film to achieve that gothic noir style that is common in many of Lynch’s films, while also adding a somewhat hokey quality that is not so common in his other films.
The visual abrasiveness of these characters correlates with Lynch’s utilization of sensory stimulation often found in his films to create the dreamlike atmosphere that envelops his audience. Throughout Wild at Heart there are many unsettling images and sounds that contribute to its nightmarish world. Between many scenes there is a close up of fire and the sound of striking a match. This encourages the feeling of passion between the two protagonists, as well as a feeling of them being chased or impending doom. The sound of a witch like cackle is also repeated. This sound is associated with Lula and her memory of her father’s death, but the sound of the cackle can evoke the same unsettling feeling in the audience that is assumed to be felt by Lula. Another repeated sound is of a rough jarring rock and roll guitar. All three of these recurring sounds provide no physical comfort, but dis-ease. The scene when Johnnie Farragut is killed in particular stands out with Lynch’s attempts to affect the senses. It begins with a close up of Juana Durango’s face yelling, baring her teeth, and flapping her tongue. Her figure moves close and then further away creating a dizzying effect. The setting appears to be a dark room, but it is all mostly black and difficult to have a clear idea of the surroundings. While this image itself is disorienting, the sounds being heard are of deep slowed down incoherent voices layered with echoes of voices and a slow percussion. Reggie enters the frame briefly in a sensual embrace with Juana all in close up. The two then begin breathing heavily and loudly. Their panting is heard very clearly, while Reggie’s eyes look to almost be rolling in the back of his head as if he is in a trance. Juana looks to be almost possessed as well by her sadistic