About halfway through David Lynch's Wild at Heart and as Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" plays on the radio, the film's heroes—lovers-on-the-run Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lulu (Laura Dern)—notice something odd in the middle of the dark, two-lane highway: scattered clothes. They drive forward and see more clothes creating a loose trail of garments that lead off the highway and into the desert.
There, among the shrubs and chirping crickets, idles a car that's been flipped upside down. Its headlights shine on the body of a man lying face up, his face covered in blood. A moment later, a woman (Sherilyn Fenn) stumbles out from the darkness, dazed from whatever's gone on behind her own bloody head wound. She notices the dead man, complains about the "sticky stuff on her hair," falls down, coughs up blood, and dies. "She died right in front of us," says Lulu. "Why'd she have to go and do that, Sailor?"
Why, indeed! The scene is incongruous with the rest of the film, with absolutely no further discussion in the movie's plot other than a moment of Sailor and Lulu wondering if the accident is a bad omen for their journey. But it's an ideal example of Lynch showcasing his bonafides as the most American of film directors, cracking the façade and examining the lurking horror within the concept of "America."
Analyzing the seedy underbelly of seemingly innocent norms has been a mainstay throughout Lynch's career—perhaps most on the nose in the opening of Blue Velvet, when he bypasses the pristine white picket fence for a close-up of the savage ants tangling in the grass below. It's not surprising, then, that throughout his career, Lynch has mined nightmare fuel from the most benign horror in American life: the automobile.
To Lynch, cars are anything but simply vehicles of transport. In Blue Velvet, they're an enclosure for a sadistic psychopath to trap a fresh-out-of-high-school sleuth for a joy ride. In Lost Highway, they're a souped-up ride that a mob boss uses to ram a tailgating dickhead off the road before offering a violent lesson on the importance of consulting the user's manual. In Mulholland Drive, they're the deus ex machina that get the dreamlike events started. In the original run of Twin Peaks, they're clues planted in the want ads; in Twin Peaks: The Return, they play a role in the grisly accidental hit-and-run committed by Richard Horne. (Even Boxing Helena, the 1993 debut film from Lynch's daughter Jennifer, contains one of the the most unintentionally hilarious hit-and-run crashes you're likely to see on film.)
So what is it about cars that Lynch finds so compelling? It could be something personal. In his book Weirdsville, USA: The Obsessive Universe of David Lynch, Paul A. Woods mentions how the scene in Wild at Heart could be based on a "horrific traffic accident" in Virginia that killed a childhood friend of Lynch. (It should be noted that I couldn't confirm this perspective elsewhere.) But cars-as-horror-devices could simply be what happens when a director that's spent his life in America distills the experience into his work.
There are more cars in the US than anywhere else in the world for plenty of reasons: For one, there's a ton of people, and there's a lot of space those people want to get to. But more deeply than that, Americans love their cars in a visceral, not merely pragmatic way. Route 66, rockabilly, drive-in movies, hot rods, NASCAR—these are purely American creations, born from the cultural cross-pollination of consumerism and the "personal freedom" it allows. There's a reason Bruce Springsteen sings about cars, and it's the same reason Jay Leno collects them.
Yet behind the elegance of a waxed fender lies the mundane and dangerous realities of driving life in America. There's the skyrocketing average commute times, the stressors that lead 80 percent of Americans into road rage at least once a year, and the more than 30,000 people a year killed in car accidents. Automobile accidents account for roughly the same number of deaths in America as guns (albeit when categorizing two-thirds of gun deaths as suicides). And car crashes are violent and painful incidents, what with the intermingling of metal and flesh. (Luckily, if it's a really bad one, you won't even know it.)
But while gun control is a hot-button issue that loudly bullies its way into the media spotlight whenever there's a new mass shooting, there's nothing about the constant beat of automobile deaths. They're something we've come to accept as the cost of living in America—a necessary evil to ball up and toss into the waste bin in the back of your mind. They're something to get over, because it's never going to change.
So rather than galvanizing support around public transit or demanding more safety regulations to keep up with the rising average speeds, we hop into our cars—when we're drunk, stoned, or fiddling with our phones—and merge among the other propelled boxes of metal and gears. We don't even spend a single moment hoping that our tender flesh and brittle bones remain intact on the ride, because if we did, we'd never have the guts to leave the driveway.
All of this, of course, is stuff Lynch already knows, either from his personal experiences, glimpses revealed during meditation sessions, or just the mundane horror you end up getting drenched in when you spend your life in America. It's no wonder Lynch remains popular abroad: He's the best filmmaking tour guide America has.
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