Something Wild (1986)

Jonathan Demme | 1hr 53min

In the challenges posed to the 80s conservative mentality of Something Wild, there is something of a sentimentality for 60s bohemia, and so what better time would there be to revive the screwball comedies of the 30s? A call back to a genre that had long since grown out of fashion might just be the perfect challenge to the stagnant lifestyle of middle-class yuppie Charlie, who keeps plugging away at his white-collar job in New York City under the happy pretence that his wife didn’t pick up and leave him nine months ago. His sudden meeting and blossoming affection with free spirit Lulu who whisks him away on an impromptu road trip is not unlike the offbeat relationship between David and Susan in Bringing Up Baby, with Melanie Griffith embodying a similar force of pure chaos as Katharine Hepburn. With his nuanced control over this Hawksian gender comedy, Jonathan Demme settles us in for a rollercoaster of a narrative as unruly as his film’s title suggests.

Something Wild never grows so comfortable in this unhinged dynamic as to become predictable though. The fact that the catalyst for this adventure is Charlie’s own decision to dine and dash from a café indicates that there may already be something of a repressed rebellious streak to him, and all it takes is this freewheeling woman to draw it out of him, throwing him into a sexual tryst at a motel, forcing him to call in sick for work, and eventually crashing their car. Demme’s eclectic soundtrack of reggae and 80s rock makes for perfectly offbeat accompaniment through these ventures, driving home several renditions of “Wild Thing” to the point that it becomes a theme for these unorthodox lovers.

Charlie’s robbed of his agency and forced into the passenger seat, while Melanie Griffiths takes over this wild first act as Lulu/Audrey.

Where Demme’s narrative takes its first major turn beyond its impulse-driven path of eccentric escapades is in Lulu’s Pennsylvanian hometown, where she essentially transforms into a whole new woman. The reckless brunette disappears, and in her place emerges Audrey, a blonde woman with a more moderated attitude, though still maintaining enough spontaneity to pull Charlie into her high school reunion. In Demme’s fluid pacing and Griffith’s shifting cadences, there is a fascinating depth to this character that keeps peeling back layers of insecurities, and which reaches an apex with the introduction of Ray – a figure whose volatility makes even her look stable.

One of Ray Liotta’s best performances – vicious, dangerous, and magnetic.

Just as Audrey’s ex-husband comes into the picture, so too does something shift within Charlie’s own sense of self-worth and motivation. Seeing the manic pixie dream girl act crumble before his eyes pushes him to start tearing down his own façade of pride in his lonely life, finally admitting to his own separation from his wife. On one level, Demme reveals a darkness to both the conservative and liberal lives on either end of society in Reagan’s America, but Ray also manifests as a repressed shadow version of Charlie, revealing the adversary he could be to himself should he push too far in the opposite direction. Where Jeff Daniels’ New York banker is meek and ineffectual, Ray Liotta is sharp and unstable, soaking up every second of screen time with a screen presence that is dangerously magnetic. His charisma seems to permanently balance on a knife edge, drawing Charlie in to believe his good-natured affability before robbing a store and ruthlessly beating up the cashier.

Though the two men appear to be wildly different, on a raw, psychological level, there may not be so much separating them besides the circumstances that led one into a life of privilege and the other through the prison system. Either way, they have both attracted the attention of the same woman, falling in love with her and the life she offers. Still, this is an objective only one of them can accomplish. It is satisfying to see Charlie finally assert some agency in his own story as he silently tails Ray and Audrey, plotting her rescue, but even more so to see him pull the exact same cruel trick on Ray that Audrey inflicted on him earlier, landing him with the bill in a diner after he has already departed. Still, as Audrey reminds us, there is still a careful balance for him to strike in uncovering his dangerous potential.

“What are you going to do now that you know how the other half lives?”

“The other half?”

“The other half of you.”

As much as Something Wild is a tale of two Americas, it is also a story of psychological dualities, splitting Charlie between his conflicting desires and Audrey between her two identities. Soul-sapping routines can’t sustain them forever, and neither can a violently unpredictable life on the road, as both degrade their own holistic humanity. It is only in destroying the forces that pull them to either side of the spectrum that some sort of resolution can be found, and for Charlie this is not only achieved in rejecting the safe life he is familiar with, but also in effectively killing his shadow self. Though much of the film is weakened by a relative lack of cinematic style, Demme marks the final confrontation with the characteristic close-ups that would define his later career, and that he would perfect in The Silence of the Lambs. As Charlie stands facing Ray with a knife lodged in his chest, Demme cuts between them staring right down the lens, dripping with sweat and drenched in blood. There is shock in their expressions, but also pain, sorrow, and weariness, carried through especially in Liotta’s piercing blue eyes which almost cut through the screen.

Demme’s trademark close-ups arriving in the climax, wonderfully framed and accentuating this shocking confrontation.

Though Demme does not possess the same mastery over abstract symbolism as David Lynch, there are certain psychological parallels between Something Wild and Blue Velvet in the probing of psychosexual instincts and villains representing darker, alternate versions of a naïve protagonist. In place of a surreal journey into the depths of the human mind though, Demme pulls off an extraordinary blend of tones and genres. With a steady command over the comedy, thriller, action, romance, and drama elements of his narrative, he sends Something Wild spinning off in hilarious and terrifying directions, drawing us into the orbit of characters simply trying to reconcile their own contradictory, innate desires.

A reggae rendition of Wild Thing delivered straight to camera to close out the film – one of its many strange pieces that shouldn’t work, but does.

Something Wild is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on YouTube.

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