Sailor (Nicolas Cage) has just been released after a two-year stretch for manslaughter and is picked up outside the prison gates by Lula (Laura Dern), who has been desperately awaiting his release. They set off across the southern states of the US, heading for California despite Sailor’s parole restrictions and relatively unaware that Lula’s mother (Diane Ladd), who wants to keep Lula and Sailor apart, but is becoming increasingly unhinged, has despatched a series of peculiar/demented individuals to find them and kill Sailor.
David Lynch was awarded the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1990 for this, his fifth theatrical feature as a director and at that point arguably his most accessible film. Although Lynch’s distinctive dream-like visuals are laced throughout once again, disrupting the narrative and evoking something more impressionistic, that core narrative is in fact very conventional and wholly coherent. Young couple in love, on the lam, caught up in various shenanigans, meet some odd characters. None of the elliptical potential confusion of (say) Lost Highway or Mulholland Dr. is to be found here, making for a far more engaging, affecting film.
Not everyone will agree with this assessment. For many, the at times astonishingly brutal and graphic violence will repel, either during the brain-smashing attack that lands Sailor in jail the first time or later on when Sailor’s ill-advised collaboration with Willem Dafoe’s repulsively lecherous and altogether hideous Bobby Peru results in many a loss of life or limb. Lynch gives us unflinching depictions of sex and violence and at times it is not easy to watch, but if nothing else it is tonally consistent, with the associated unease for the audience as to what might happen next and to whom.
The cast of characters are excellently drawn and played. Cage and Dern produce some of their best work here, fleshing out fully-formed characters with hopes, dreams, fears, pasts, coherent motives, and utterly believable and compelling chemistry. Dafoe is thoroughly unpleasant, menacing and unpredictable and reliable actors like Harry Dean Stanton, Sherilyn Fenn, Isabella Rossellini, Crispin Glover, and Pruitt Taylor Vince are hugely impactful, even with what is often quite limited time on screen. The ongoing subtle and not-so subtle references to The Wizard Of Oz (clicked heels, a picture of a much-loathed character dissolving on contact with water) make for an intriguing touch alongside some disorienting but never distancing visual tics and flourishes and the whole film moves along with commendable narrative briskness when it might otherwise have disappeared up its own backside in more self-indulgent hands.
When that Palme d’Or award was handed over, there was a mixture of boos and cheers and some well-regarded and not easily shocked critics were among the decriers. Which just goes to show that at its most cutting-edge, inventive, and artistically adventurous, cinema can divide and challenge, rather than merely divert, pacify, or superficially amuse. Not for everyone, but a compelling, fascinating, and extremely accomplished film from a director who continues to give audiences much to contemplate. One to avoid reacting to in a hurry – let it percolate instead. As with a number of Lynch’s films getting the BD treatment, you can get it on its own, or as part of a boxset.
Extras: Even by Lynch’s standards, a peculiar bunch. We get all 8 episodes (they’re around 2 mins long each) of his 2002 DumbLand animated series. They are sweary, wilfully absurd, and unlikely to interest anyone but completists. We also get one of Lynch’s early shorts, The Grandmother, about a boy who plants some seeds, one of which grows into a grandmother. It is experimental, difficult stuff and more than a little tricky to get into, but of more than a little curiosity value. The other extra is a segment from Lumiere and Company, which saw a number of directors, including of course Lynch attempt to film segments using the equipment employed by the Lumiere brothers at the birth of cinema. It is less than a minute long and it is tempting to wonder whether such a brief excerpt was really worth including.