David Lynch is a very personal filmmaker and as such he provokes very personal reactions from the audience at large. (When Wild at Heart won the Palme D'Or at Cannes it was met with a fair share of scoffs. Roger Ebert, in his haughtier moments, is a particularly vociferous detractor.) In some he inspires cultish fealty, and in others anything from indifference to antipathy. What both sides often tend to overlook however is Lynch's demonstrable talents as a formal filmmaker.
One of the things that usually attracts, or turns-off, viewers is Lynch’s unique sense of humor. The dialogue and performances are hilariously stylized and exaggerated, and to quote them doesn’t do them justice (although I’ll try: “did I ever tell you this jacket’s a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom?” See it doesn't work.) But the exaggeration functions as the foundation of a larger cinematic framework.
There have always been some film theorists who’ve compared the film-going experience to dreaming (as both involve immobile individuals experiencing vividly in the dark) but Lynch seems to have really taken it to heart. His films are often set within a dreamscape where everything is not only exaggerated but also irrational and frightening. Wild at Heart is no exception – it’s set in a fantasy American landscape in which innocent, well-intentioned young people are under threat from vast criminal conspiracies. (The same could be said of much of his other work, such as Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Dr.) Lynch's driving philosophy has never been more pithily recapitulated than it is in this film: "the world is wild at heart and weird on top."
Wild at Heart plays out as a road movie, populated by a series of freaks and weirdoes exceptionally played by a company of well-known actors (like Willem Dafoe) and Lynch regulars (like Jack Nance). Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) are two young lovers who embark on a romantic adventure, hotly pursued by Lula’s dangerous and disapproving mother and the gangsters she hires to find them. The film has abundant references to classic American popular culture, from the soundtrack (at one point Sailor stops the action so he can sing Elvis' "Love Me" to Lula) to the dialogue ("I wish we were somewhere over that rainbow") to the intertextual references. It’s a nightmarish, contemporary Wizard of Oz in which the Yellow Brick Road has been supplanted by the interstate.
Lynch underscores it all with a complex editing structure that leaps back in time and is rife with visual metaphor (particularly the recurring fire motif.) After all, the dream logic isn’t enunciated by any of the characters in the film but by Lynch himself. Those poor characters aren’t lost in their own subconsciouses but in the director’s.
Lynch shows his true directatorial strengths in a scene near the end of the film in which he transforms the nibbling of a candy necklace into a gripping and tender moment. Even his detractors would have to give him credit for that.