August 27, 1990 12:00 PM

Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern

A head is blown off by a shotgun and shown in close-up flying through the air, then landing with a bloody thud. A hand that has been shot off is carried away by a dog while the hand’s original owner is still frantically looking for it so he can have it sewn back on. One character tells another, “You belong in one of these toilets,” and the camera then zooms in on the interior of a toilet bowl.

A woman simulates a suicide attempt by smearing a little lipstick on her wrist, then likes the effect so much that she smears it all over her face, like a mask. Flies are shown swarming around a puddle of vomit, and the puddle’s lingering odor is discussed over and over.

We could go on, but we won’t. Director David Lynch could go on, and he does.

Flushed from his success with Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, Lynch seems to be trying to determine how far he can go—the way Steven Spielberg was in the excessively violent Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom—and the answer is too far.

Not many directors can fill a movie screen with such arresting, disturbing images as Lynch. (The name Fellini is hereby quietly invoked, but don’t let it go to your head, Dave.)

Purely visual images are so dominant in this movie, in fact, that its real star is fire. Lynch tosses shots of smoldering cigarettes, lit matches, burning houses, camp-fires and immolated people into the film the way some people toss peppers into chili. An only sporadically coherent plot combines with the fiery visions and the violence (if fire is the star, blood is the second lead); it all suggests the kind of nightmare you might have while dozing on a beach on a sweltering day.

Cage plays a small-time thug in a little southern town. His prize possession is a snakeskin jacket, and he often seems like a compulsive Elvis imitator, lapsing into the deep, slurry tones that Presley used when he was trying to be especially cool, and singing two Elvis songs, “Love Me’ ” and “Love Me Tender.” He’s a fascinating character, capable of extremes of affection and viciousness, alternately shrewd and helpless. Cage is convincingly schizophrenic in the role, using his basically blank-expressioned style to great effect.

Paroled while serving a manslaughter sentence, he runs off for California with Dern, a gum-smacking cutie who is the antithesis of feminism. She devotes her life to swooning at Cage’s every movement, gushes over his lovemaking (and body parts); he calls her Peanut. Dern’s, too, is an impressive performance.

Equally striking is the work of Willem Dafoe, as a smarmy ex-marine (sporting a Clark Gable mustache) whom Cage and Dern encounter in a little Texas town. And no one should complain about Diane Ladd, as Dern’s loony mother (she is also Dern’s mother in real life), Isabella Rossellini as a sort of witchy gypsy, and J.E. (Ruthless People) Freeman as a moody hoodlum with a sentimental crush on Ladd. And, just to remind you of how crazy this film is, its most stable, normal-seeming character, Ladd’s husband, is played by Harry Dean Stanton, ordinarily an eccentric extraordinaire among actors.

So perversely disruptive is Lynch’s script that all these parts don’t add up to what they should. Just when the movie seems to be developing a mood, Lynch will throw in some kind of curve, such as the derelict played by Frank Caruso, who shows up out of nowhere to intone, “My dog barks some. Mentally you picture my dog, but I have not told you what kind of dog I have. Maybe you even picture Toto from The Wizard of Oz.”

Which brings up the preoccupation this film’s characters have with The Wizard of Oz. It runs right down to Dents clicking the heels of her red shoes together when she’s wishing for something and imagining her mother as the Wicked Witch of the West. California in this connection becomes the equivalent of Oz.

It’s substantially better, of course, to have too much to think about in a movie than not enough. But this sensory overload all comes across as alienating and enigmatic, right down to the closing shot of two people who start twirling around, in carousel fashion, even though they’re supposed to be standing still on the roof of a car. Lynch may want to reconsider the fact that unpredictability for its own sake is just a different kind of predictability, and one that makes for a film that is ultimately, if memorably, unsatisfying. (R)

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