By Drew Morton | Underappreciated Gems | August 4, 2009 |
By Drew Morton | Underappreciated Gems | August 4, 2009 |
Wild Things (1998) is a trashy film, it’s a film that makes you want to run and take a shower after watching it because you feel like you’ve been spending too much time in the muggy, mosquito-infested air of the Everglades. To reach this conclusion is not meant to be derogatory to this piece of pulp. Rather, I intend for it to be the greatest complement I can bestow upon it. While this quality obviously stems from the narrative material, which I will discuss shortly and vaguely, director John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Mad Dog and Glory) amplifies the effect via nearly every filmic resource I can think of. He utilizes overlapping slow-motion dissolves of the alligators emerging from Florida swamps, a sleazy saxophone driven score by composer George S. Clinton, and casting against type to place the audience in a position of certain uncertainty, which we joyously occupy for nearly two hours.
While I’m sure many Pajiba readers have enjoyed this flick late on a Friday night, I’ll attempt to provide a brief and spoiler-free synopsis. Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) is a high school guidance counselor and eligible bachelor living in a high-class beach community in Florida. One of his students, the wealthy, popular, and sexy Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) repeatedly attempts to pursue Sam romantically. While Sam never gives into her seductions, he is passive-aggressive with regard to her advances, which doesn’t help when he finds Kelly accusing him of rape. As the police begin collecting evidence against him, upper class members of beach community, led by Kelly’s mother (Theresa Russell) and her attorney (Robert Wagner), attempt to cast Sam out by threatening his life and vandalizing his house.
As complex as this plot may already sound, we’re only reached the heart of the film’s first act. We think we know where this plot is headed as Sam finds himself headed to trial with the support of his own attorney, the slimy Kenneth Bowden (Bill Murray). We’re sure he’s been wrongly accused and we find ourselves feeling sympathetic towards him. That sympathy finds itself rebutted when two police detectives (Kevin Bacon and Daphne Rubin-Vega) receive testimony from a second accuser: Suzie (Neve Campbell), a girl from the other side of the tracks. As the twists and turns keep coming, we begin to feel that there is an underlying scheme at the heart of these actions, allegations and, as we’ll soon discover, murders. While the film progresses, the question we find ourselves posing are not what the scheme is but who is aligned with whom.
I’m reluctant to delve much further into the story as the reveals are one of the characteristics that make Wild Things so much fun to watch. I’ve seen the film a handful of times and upon each viewing, due to the sheer number of twists, I find myself surprised by one or two turns of the screw that I had forgotten. Contrary to most films (like The Way of the Gun), the exponentially convoluted nature of the plot actually works in the film’s favor. While I admit that it is possible that some elements probably wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny if charted in a thorough and systematic manner, the end credit flashbacks do a good job of addressing our doubts. Yet, we’re never really given time to doubt, as the craft of McNaughton and screenwriter Stephen Peters keeps us preoccupied in this muggy hall of smoke and mirrors.
More specifically, McNaughton has an incredibly engaging visual style. Take, for instance, one shot early in the film that conveys the tense relationship between Kelly and her mother. We understand there is a distance between them purely from a visual standpoint. As Kelly enters the house on the ground floor, she slams the door just as her mother slams the balcony door on the second floor. It’s a well-composed, cinematic way of underlining the essential characteristic of their interactions. McNaughton further exemplifies his thoughtful visual style through his conveyance of the feeling of the locale. McNaughton, during Sam’s trips to the swamps, dissolves from Sam’s sweaty brow to alligators emerging from the dark waters. Later, McNaughton visually links Kelly to the sneaky creature, framing her in a similar fashion as she swims in the pool of a local country club.
Perhaps the best indicator of McNaughton’s unique use of film form is exemplified in the film’s infamous love scene. Contrary to popular belief, the scene is effective not for its nudity, but for the details that McNaughton lingers on. His use of staging is perfect with regard to the three performers. There’s something sloppy, but sensual about their sinful affections. Throughout the sequence, he’ll cut away to a close up of a pair of panties dropping or a mouthful of champagne making its way down the landscape of a woman’s body. The scene always surprises me because it isn’t particularly graphic. Rather, the sexuality of the scene stems from these details and George S. Clinton’s perfect score, driven by the low slides of a bass guitar and the erupting lisps of a saxophone. In other words, it’s mood, not exploitive imagery, that provides the scene with its sexual power.
The final joy I take in watching Wild Things is in McNaughton’s ability to solicit engaging performances from actors and actresses cast against type. McNaughton seems to be preoccupied with this type of casting, which he also attempted in his earlier film Mad Dog and Glory (1993) when he cast Bill Murray as a mafia kingpin and Robert DeNiro as a gutless police officer. Here, Dillon plays his usual slimeball role (see also There’s Something About Mary) and the rather weak Denise Richards plays the late-teen sex pot. Not much of a stretch there. Yet, there’s Bill Murray as the scummy lawyer, giving us a double-bill of dickishness in 1996 with this and the Farrelly Brothers film Kingpin. As with Kingpin, he’s a lot of fun to watch here. More significant of this casting trend however is Neve Campbell, who plays against her normal good girl type (Scream) as a conniving piece of trailer trash. Thanks to her presence and the way the character is written, we find ourselves constantly re-evaluating how she fits into the plot. She’s smarter than she looks, there’s something else to her, and it’s a joy to find her putting us in that space of uncertainty.
Of course, Wild Things is not a perfect film, nor will every viewer find it appealing. The plot twists, if encountered by an audience member who has bought the ticket but decided not to take the ride, can come off as fairly ludicrous. Moreover, Denise Richards (Starship Troopers) doesn’t bring much else to the film than a physical presence, which I never found particularly unique or attractive in the first place. Finally, the lurid eroticism this neo-noir has the potential to rub many members of the opposite sex the wrong way (my wife rolls her eyes and leaves the living room whenever I think about watching it). Spending two hours with these characters in this well-defined world is a dank and feverish experience. I’d call it a filmic guilty pleasure, but I don’t believe in feeling guilty after enjoying myself. I still might want to take that shower though.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.