Friday, June 7, 2013

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: Something Wild

Something Wild (1986)
Directed by: Jonathan Demme.
Written by: E. Max Frye.
Starring: Jeff Daniels (Charles Driggs), Melanie Griffith (Lulu / Audrey Hankel), Ray Liotta (Ray Sinclair), Dana Preu (Peaches), Robert Ridgely (Richard Graves), Jack Gilpin (Larry Dillman), Su Tissue (Peggy Dillman), Margaret Colin (Irene).

Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild is one of those rare movies where from one moment to the next, you really have no idea where the story is headed. When you sit back and look at the plot from the outside, it seems like a fairly standard boy meets girl plot, and as Demme himself has noted, a strange mix between screwball comedy and film noir. And yet, as it is playing, the movie gives us no hint as to where it is leading us, and the result is thrilling. When the film was released in 1986, it drew comparisons to other so called “yuppie nightmare” films like Scorsese’s After Hours and Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Like those two masterpieces, Something Wild is dark comedy, where hilarity and violence co-exist right next to each other.

The film opens in a Manhattan sandwich shop, where straight laced Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) finishes his meal, and walks out without paying. Outside, he is confronted by Lulu (Melanie Griffth), not an employee, but a fellow customer, who correctly guesses that Charles walks out on the cheque sometimes just for the thrill of it. She decides to give Charles an even bigger thrill – and soon she has convinced him to call in excuses to the office, and his wife and two kids back home, and hit the road with her. Charles isn’t sure at first, but afterall, Lulu looks like Melanie Griffth circa 1986, and with her Louise Brooks bob (hence the name Lulu) and strange jewelry, combined with that innocent sounding voice, and the gleam of lust in her eye she looks, as one character later notes, that “she could fuck you in half” – so away he goes with her. Their journey – in a classic American car of course – takes unexpected detours through rural and small town America, to seedy hotels, and include kinky sex included handcuffs. And just when you think you have the movie figured out – it’s another of those uptight men, meets wild girl where she teaches him to loosen up, and he teaches her to settle down – the movie throws one curveball after another at you. First, there’s a stop at Lulu’s mothers house, where she transforms from the black haired vixen, into the blonde bombshell next door. Then it’s off to her high school reunion, where first he meets someone he doesn’t want to see (a work collegue) and then she does – her husband Ray (Ray Liotta), fresh out of jail, and wanting Lulu back. Liotta, in his film debut, has the raw edge and sexuality necessary to pull off this role – you’re attracted to and repulsed by him.

The scene at the high school reunion is a highpoint for the film – and a master class in storytelling and tonal shifts. From the carefree, giddy dance number with Daniels and Griffth, to the dark cloud that hangs over the film once Ray enters, to the secrets that come up – where it is revealed that Lulu is not the only one who is adept at lying – the sequence is wonderfully acted, written and directed. Truly one of the best things Demme has ever put on screen.

The darkness and violence that takes over in the second half of the film never truly clouds over the comedy. There are still hilarious moments – Daniels in a truck stop buying new clothes for example – but it’s clear from the moment Ray enters that things aren’t going to turn out okay – at least not without some difficulty. The violent climax of the film truly is scary and disturbing.

A film like this is made or broken by its casting, and here Demme gets it just right. Jeff Daniels seems so normal as Charlie, that you cannot help but like him, even if he’s throwing over his entire life in those first few scenes. And Griffth has never really been better, walking that fine line between a Claudette Colbert screwball heroine and a Barbara Stanwyck femme fatale. She was brilliant in Brian DePalma’s 1984 film Body Double, as a porn star, and went on to another great role in Mike Nichols Working Girl (1988), but somewhere along the way, she seems to have lost her way. Here, she is effortless – sexy, wild, funny and heartfelt. A truly remarkable combination. And in Liotta, Demme discovered a truly great actor. His easy charm sits next to that well of scary violence that he can pull out at the drop of a hat. Other than GoodFellas (1990), Something Wild probably remains the best performance Liotta has ever given.
It has now been 25 years since Something Wild came out, and yet it still retains the ability to shock and surprise. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t something this funny, this sexy, this dark, this violent. It’s a reminder of just how fast and loose Demme can be behind the camera – how he has the ability to make things seem like they are made up as he goes along, despite all the planning that went into them. After the success of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Demme seemingly got lost in issue movies (Philidelphia, Beloved) and remakes (The Truth About Charlie, The Manchurian Candidate), and although all of those films are good, to varying degrees, it wasn’t until Rachel Getting Married (2008), that he made a film that seems as alive as this one. It truly is one of his best films.

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