When Nicolas Cage is truly locked into a performance there’s something magnetic and strange about him – a certain larger than lifeness that I find captivating. If you look at someone like John Travolta – who is frequently hammy – you’ll see that there often isn’t any passion in his eyes to back up his oddly emphasized line readings, whereas Nicolas Cage never fails to bring his particular brand of intensity to a project, even if it is just a cheesy B-movie. And while Cage does sometimes lean too much on obvious tics, the tension between the goofiness of what he’s doing and how avidly he seems to be trying to do it elevates his performances over someone like William Shatner, whose performances often lack all tension because he has nothing to offer but tics.
I think that what has ultimately doomed Cage’s latest string of flops is not Cage, but rather, the world around Cage, which doesn’t rise up to his level of mania. If you put him in the middle of something that’s plodding he's still going to commit to the material, and the movie will suffer from the mismatch. However, when Cage is presented with a world as manic as he is then his oversize ambitions seem to make sense.
Which might be why Wild At Heart is the ultimate Nic Cage movie: it does the best job of making a world as flamboyant and crazy as Cage is. David Lynch’s movies often suffer from tonal inconsistencies, but here he’s right on target, building characters around Cage who fit in with his karate-dancing ways. Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Willem Dafoe – all of them go for broke, whether that means smearing lipstick all over their faces or wearing horrible, horrible dentures of tiny teeth with braces. In particular, Dern is captivating as a woman who would still love a man after he tells her that he's no good because “I’m a robber. And a manslaughterer. And I haven’t had any parental guidance."
On paper this movie might not make sense: the plot doesn't follow a linear path, and all of the disparate characters are delusional in very different ways. But in practice there is a consistency to the world that goes a long way towards grounding it; this movie works because everyone is crazy, even if some of them are voodoo crazy and others are Elvis imitator crazy. This is not a movie that plans on coasting on Cage's unique energy, it's a movie that surrounded him with a cast that can go the distance and then gives them all a long weird runway to drive down. Consequently, Cage's mega-acting paid mega-dividends. Now if only Season of the Witch had done the same...