The Film: Something Wild (1986)
The Principals: Jonathan Demme (director); E. Max Frye (writer); Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith, Ray Liotta. (With cameos from John Sayles, John Waters, and Demme’s mother.)
The Premise: A straight-laced yuppie takes an impromptu road trip with a sexy, shoplifting free spirit, and the situation quickly spins out of control.
Is it any good? Yes, very good – if it’s possible for a movie in the Criterion Collection to be underrated, this one certainly is.
When I write about a movie (or hell, even talk about a movie), I try to avoid delving too deeply into spoilers – with a movie like Something Wild, even more so. I went in knowing very little besides the cast and basic premise, which kicks off in the first three minutes of the film (not counting credits). The protagonist of Something Wild, Charlie Driggs, makes one small decision in the first scene that changes his life forever – in unpredictable ways – and there’s a thrill in being along with him for the ride and not knowing how deep the rabbit hole goes. And in the final act – when things enter more familiar territory structurally as the story starts moving toward conclusion – we’re buoyed through the predictable by our affection for the characters.
The three leads are cast perfectly – Daniels puts his everyman charm to use; Griffith is sweet, sexy, and steely – a prototypical Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl, but with an actual character arc; and newcomer Liotta is magnetic and terrifying – he goes through this movie like the proverbial china shop bull, laying waste and not giving a fuck.
By keeping his focus on these characters and performances, Demme is able to ground and balance his disparate tones – this is a movie that starts off light-hearted and gets inexorably darker, until actual violence (quite a bit of it) finally occurs. And when it does, there’s nothing romantic, fun, or surreal about it – instead, it’s bloody, brutal, and disturbing (all the more jarring given the light-hearted nature of the movie’s first half). A structure like this would still be remarkable now, but it was almost unheard of in pre-Tarantino 1986. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet came out the same year, and it feels like both films were tapping into something subconscious in the zeitgeist … the moment where the culture started to confront the dark heart of “morning in America”.
Something Wild isn’t revolutionary. But it’s fun, and it lives up to its title – check it out.
(The only thing I’d change about the movie is the terrible reggae-ish version of “Wild Thing” that’s sung over the end credits, by a character we’d only met once before who dances badly.)
Random anecdotes: After having previous film Swing Shift taken away from him, re-edited, and partly reshot, Demme was ready to leave filmmaking behind until he read the script for Something Wild, written by then-film student (!) E. Max Frye. Demme’s career significantly rebounded, while Frye went on to write Palmetto, Where the Money Is, and one episode of Band of Brothers.
Kevin Kline and Chris Isaak were the original choices for the roles that ultimately went to Daniels and Liotta. Things worked out best for everyone, especially Liotta – this was his first time out of the bit role/soap opera ghetto, and his work as Ray Sinclair made him an instant star. As for Isaak, he was able to finish recording his second album – and then went on to start his film career with roles in Demme’s next two films – Married to the Mob and Silence of the Lambs.
In Dumb and Dumber, Harry and Lloyd skip out on their tab at a roadside diner and leave it for Sea Bass to pay. When Lloyd asks Harry where he learned the trick, he replies “in a movie”. That movie is Something Wild (also starring Daniels).
It’s not streaming (as far as I saw), but it’s available on Criterion DVD/Blu-ray.
Why the hell doesn’t Demme work more? (The Neil Young stuff doesn’t count.)
Cinematic Soulmates: Splash. After Hours. Blue Velvet. Elizabethtown. Grosse Pointe Blank. Oh, and apparently “The Newsroom”: