The Tao of Nicolas Cage: ‘Wild At Heart’

Cage runs off with Laura Dern while doing his best Elvis impression.

“Did I ever tell ya that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?”

I don’t remember the first time I saw every Nicolas Cage movie I’ve seen but the ones I do remember I’ll never forget. Wild At Heart is a first-time viewing I will most certainly never forget. I saw it for the first time when I was about 18, roughly 13 years or so after the film was released. By that time I was already a huge fan of Cage so I was making my way through his back catalogue, tracking down all the stuff I hadn’t seen yet.

I would go to Borders (shout out to those that remember Borders) just about every Friday and pick up a new DVD. On this particular Friday I had purchased Wild At Heart. A friend came over and we tossed it in the DVD player. Two hours later I sat there, staring at the TV, a dumbfounded look on my face, I’m sure. I honestly had no idea what I had just watched but I knew that I loved it.

Now some 12 years later after that first viewing and I’ve seen the movie a number of times. And every time I end a viewing I think I probably still have that same look on my face. I still love the movie very, very much but the difference is I understand it better. At least I think I do.

For those that haven’t seen Wild At Heart it’s important to understand that this isn’t just a Nicolas Cage movie but rather it’s a David Lynch film that happens to star Nicolas Cage. Joining Cage is Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe, Diane Ladd, Harry Dean Stanton, Isabella Rossellini and just a dash of Crispin Glover. For someone like me this is an orgy of weirdo film goodness.

Cage stars as Sailor Ripley (awesome name!) and in the film’s opening scene a man approaches him with a switchblade. In what would be best described as self-defense taken to the extreme – something Cage would do again years later in Con Air — Sailor beats the dude’s head in until his brains are exposed. This of course kills the man and Sailor goes to jail for nearly two years.

When Sailor gets out of jail Lula Fortune (Dern) is waiting for him with his snakeskin jacket, which represents a symbol of his individuality and his belief in personal freedom. Sailor and Lula are a young couple wildly in love and they won’t let anything keep them apart. This is good because Lula’s mom, Marietta (Ladd), will go to great lengths to tear them apart.

Sailor decides he’s going to break his parole and take Lula cross-country from their home state of North Carolina to California. Marietta catches wind of this and sends not one, but two trackers out to find them and bring Lula back to her. The trackers are her goodhearted boyfriend Johnnie Farragut (Stanton) and her evil, criminal lover Marcelles Santos (J.E. Freeman). Not only do Sailor and Lula have to worry about both Johnnie and Santos, but they encounter some strange occurrences and characters along the way that delay their California destination.

On the surface Wild At Heart is a pretty typical road movie about young lovers trying to escape from a parent that wants to break them up. But these aren’t your typical people making this movie and so what happens is well, weird.

Wild At Heart is the Nicolas Cage movie I most frequently find myself telling people to watch. And it’s not because it’s his best, though it’s up there and if someone wanted to argue it was his best they could build a strong case, but it’s one of the hardest ones to describe. You have to actually see Wild At Heart to truly believe Wild At Heart.

Here’s an example of a scene in Wild At Heart. Sailor and Lula go out dancing, which is probably their favorite thing to do. Where they end up going to dance is at a show for thrash metal band Powermad. Just the fact that the band they go to see is Powermad is strangely bizarre. And Powermad is sort of a big part of the film. Sailor and Lula love them and talk about them and listen to them throughout the film. But anyway, at this show they’re dancing away as Powermad plays their most popular song “Slaughterhouse” – basically the film’s theme song – when some punk starts dancing up against Lula. When the song ends Sailor makes the punk apologize.

Instead of just going into another song the band, along with the rest of the crowd, watches as Sailor forces this guy into apologizing. The weird part though is that Sailor then just grabs the mic and says “you guys know this one” and Powermad proceeds to play “Love Me” by Elvis Presley while Sailor sings the song. While Sailor is singing he’s circled by a crowd of screaming girls.

This is all so crazy. Every time I see this scene I have so many questions. How does Powermad know that Sailor is going to sing that song? He never tells them what song to play. Never mind the fact that the band is clearly ok with it, but how would these metal fans react to this? It’s not like the band and Sailor are doing a metal rendition of Elvis. This a straight forward cover of “Love Me.” It doesn’t really make sense, but it’s awesome.

This Powermad/Elvis scene doesn’t even begin to scratch the weirdness of the film though. It’s just a blip of the weird radar of Wild At Heart. There’s Crispin Glover’s strange cameo as Lula’s cousin Dell who is obsessed with Christmas and making sandwiches, Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru, one of the most disgusting and creepy characters in the history of cinema and the strange Wizard of Oz connections that run throughout the film. That’s right, the entire film is sort of a weird take on the Wizard of Oz.

The problem with recommending this film to people is that it is a bit of an acquired taste. It’s weird and some people just don’t like weird. It’s overtly sexual and even vulgar at times. If you’re cool with weird sexuality though you’re in luck!

Like I said earlier I don’t think this is Cage’s best movie but it’s defintjely in the discussion. Cage’s performance is probably his most Cageian. Every time I watch Wild At Heart I can’t help but think this is Cage living his dream. Cage gets to wear a snakeskin jacket and boots, things I’m pretty sure came straight from his closet. He gets to sing Elvis, who we know he loves. Oh and if that’s not enough, he basically does an Elvis impression throughout the entire movie. And he gets to bash in heads, dance, freak out and smoke cigarettes. Tell me that isn’t Nicolas Cage’s dream. You can’t. You know why? Because it’s his dream.

Cage’s role as Sailor may also be directly responsible for some of the fun roles he’s had that followed Wild At Heart. In a 2005 interview with Total Film he credited Lynch for teaching him to have fun. “It was David Lynch who made it clear to me that if you’re not having fun then the audience isn’t going to either,” Cage said in the interview. “That movie was very playful and there wasn’t a whole lot of time to think about things on the set because David would come in with new monologues on the day and actually trying to memorise any of it was just absurd. You couldn’t over-analyse, you just jumped in and did it.”

So it’s possible that something like Face/Off, where Cage appears to be having loads of fun, wouldn’t exist without Cage first getting this important wisdom from Lynch.

I love Wild At Heart. Its such a wildly unique experience. If you ever get the opportunity to see it on a big screen with an audience, do it. I promise you won’t regret it. Its a bonkers movie, it is, but at its heart it’s a love story, maybe the greatest love story. And it definitely has what is my favorite ending of any movie ever. Most importantly of all, Wild At Heart is everything that makes Cage great (it’s his dream!) and great Cage is great entertainment.

Before for Wild At Heart was released Cage and Dern portrayed similar characters for Lynch in Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted. It’s just a brief two-minute phone conversation but Cage and Dern are both fantastic. Don’t take my word for it though, watch for yourself!