Here’s my dilemma—reveal too little about Something Wild, and you might not have sufficient reason to give it try; reveal too much, and I undercut the wily tonal shifts and narrative unpredictability that makes it such a joy to watch. It’s probably a dereliction of my critical duties no matter which route I choose, it’s just a matter of which is the lesser of two evils.
Jonathan Demme’s 1986 oddball screwball romantic comedy/road movie/thriller is still, 25 years later, a film in search of the wider audience it always deserved. It also has the odd distinction of being a quintessential cult film that never found the cult it deserved, so it’s doubly cursed. But actually, it’s a film best come across accidentally, unawares, knowing as little about it as possible (as I did the first time I saw it, catching it one stray weeknight evening on the local UHF movie station, in 1992 or so), letting it lure you in and seduce you. And if you do fall under its spell, then it’s your own little secret, a film you feel was made just for you. Singing its praises explicitly seems antithetical to the whole point of the film itself, and yet it’s such a pure cinematic pleasure that you want to spread word of it to as many people as possible right away.
The best approach might be to couch the discussion in terms of a phrase coined by Paul Thomas Anderson, the “gear shift film”. An excellent, but suitably vague term, it can be used to describe certain types of unclassifiable films that start off as one thing, and turn on a dime into something quite different, upsetting and defying all expectations of where things were headed. It’s different from a gimmicky narrative twist in that the change here is usually either tonally or genre based (sometimes both), the film’s feel and style turning on a pivot and shooting off in completely different direction that is still, somehow, thematically consistent with what came before, even if the narrative changes.
Cinematic history is rife with examples, but Something Wild is probably the best exemplar of this particular “genre”. It begins as a screwball sex farce, with a meet-cute in a Manhattan diner between straight laced, hopelessly square yuppie Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) and lusty free-spirited sex-kitten Lulu (Melanie Daniels, channeling Louise Brooks via Betty Boop). She offers him a ride back to his office, and just like that she’s shanghaied him off to a seedy motel for an illicit dirty Friday afternoon of booze and kinky sex. Charlie’s stuttering protestations – halfhearted at best—are no match for Lulu’s relentless sex appeal.
So, despite his qualms about missing work, racking up charges on the corporate card and the excuses he needs to make to his family, she is just like that dragging him down the open highway in her gunboat of a convertible, off to God knows where. These early scenes, which comprise the first 35 minutes or so of the film, are so colorful and effortless—underscored by a relentless barrage of reggae and world music—that you wish they would just continue on forever.
There are early hints, though, that neither Charlie nor Lulu is who he/she seems to be, and you start to see that both of them are trading lies back and forth to one another, even as they feed off each other’s vulnerabilities. There’s the faint drone of a dial tone on the other end as Charlie calls “home”, saying good night to his kids. And there’s the hung over despair that hangs over Lulu as she staggers around the motel in the morning, belying the ebullience of her Manic Pixie Dream Girl veneer. There are vast wells of despair and desperation just waiting to drown them both.
But then they are off again, barreling down an infinite highway through a landscape of small town Americana, picking up hitchhikers, getting into small time trouble. Lulu is obviously running from – or towards – something, but we don’t really know what until about 45 minutes in. At that point, the first shift happens, as the two pay a visit to Lulu’s mother, and the lusty, drunk party girl transforms herself into a demure girl next door now named Audrey. The Louise Brooks wig is gone, replaced by a shock of short dirty blonde hair, the hooker outfit replaced by a white flowered dress. Lulu/Audrey introduces Charlie as her husband, and Charlie, primed for this now, plays along as best he can. This is quiet interlude of idyllic suburban life, before the gathering storm crashes down around them.
This storm comes in the person of Ray, played with steely-eyed menace by a young Ray Liotta, in his first film role. And here is where I get off the bus in terms of the narrative, because to give anything more away would be irresponsible. Let’s just say that Something Wild goes from one extreme to another in the flash of an eye, and rides its darkness down to a tense, violent, but satisfying end.
What I can tell you is that this transition, while certainly abrupt, is nearly seamless. Demme has complete control of the slippery script, and is able to turn the film we had been watching nearly inside out, while keeping the characters and story entirely consistent. This may not sound like it works on paper, but watching it unfold it all falls in to place. The lynchpins, though, are Daniels and Griffith, both of whom show tremendous range as their characters go through seismic evolutions as they descend together into a nightmare.
Griffith especially has never been better, melding a variety of archetypes (free spirit Manic Pixie Dream Girl/ sweet girl next door/ femme fatale) into a richly realized individual who is the calm of the storm, as well as its instigator. Lulu/Audrey appears at first as caricature of male fantasy in overdrive, but as the film proceeds, she ends up being the most three dimensional character in the film.
And I’d be hard pressed to actually come up with a better performance by Daniels. His natural affability and aw-shucks demeanor makes it impossible not to root for him. But Liotta is the true show stealer here – the second he dances onto screen (quite literally), the film receives a jolt that makes its last hour seems like a minute. Charming and terrifying in equal measure, he’s simply awe inspiring, his performance a tour de force he’s never replicated.
Criterion’s decision to release Something Wild gives credence to what I have always believed, that Something Wild is one of the great American films of the 1980s. It’s too bad that the supplementary features included don’t do justice to the film. A thirty minute interview with Demme is rambling and enjoyable, and does reveal certain details of the film’s production (especially the music) that might not occur to a first time viewer. He also reveals himself to be a genius of casting and devoting as much care to populating the background with memorable cameos and bit part extras as enhancing the strengths of his leads (indeed, one of the great joys of the film are all the eccentrics and weirdos drifting through Charlie and Lulu’s story).
A much shorter interview with screenwriter E. Max Frye reveals a little bit of the origins of the core story (witnessing a similar meeting between a punked-out goth chick and a straight laced businessman in a Greenwich Village Bar in the 1980s). Frye also downplays the marked shift in tone that we see in the film, saying that everything proceeds logically from the characters and that he sees the film as a seamlessly flowing continuum, and I can’t help but think he’s right. Demme does nail this in the film, and it’s the key reason it works as well as it does, because the characters bridge all the superficially abrupt changes in the film.
But the real justification for the Criterion edition is simply the film itself, which has been cleaned up and enriched mightily since its previous rush job DVD release in the early 2000s. The color palette is at once more riotous and nuanced, everything brighter or darker where it needs to be. Hopefully this rerelease will increase the film’s profile, garnering the wider audience it certainly deserves.