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Wild Things Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 September 2007

Image “Wild Things” is a jazzy thriller with a lot of laughs; it never takes itself entirely seriously, nor should you. It’s lushly sexual, with both straight and lesbian romances worked into the plot. It's a little too long, leaves some unanswered questions, and probably has about two twists too many, but it's so confidently corrupt, so sure of its effects, and is so well-played by a nervy cast that I had a great time. I suspect if you get off-rhythm with its bouncy beat, you might end up sneering at it, but I sure the heck didn't. Director John McNaughton had me in his pocket from the opening images of the Everglades—the movie is set in sultry south Florida.

Matt Dillon plays Sam Lombardo, a well-liked guidance counselor and sailing instructor at the high school in very posh Blue Bay -- even the "slum" homes have swimming pools—south of Miami. Away from school, Sam has a well-deserved reputation for cutting a sexual swath through the local female population, one reason why Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards), a student, has her eyes on him. But after she washes his Jeep and wanders into his home dripping wet, she emerges later, upset, and accuses Sam of rape. Her incredibly rich mother Sandra (Theresa Russell) is furious, not just because her daughter was raped, but because she was raped by a "hired hand"—one she'd already had an affair with herself. She does that a lot.

Police detectives Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) don't agree on the likelihood of Sam's guilt—she thinksKelly's lying, he thinks Sam is—but when they're go to the alligator farm run by Ruby (an unrecognizable Carrie Snodgress) to talk to Ruby's granddaughter (I guess), Suzy Toller (Neve Campbell), both are surprised when Suzy says that Sam had also raped her a year before. We've already seen that Kelly and Suzy despise one another; Kelly is a snobbish, upper-crust brat, and Suzy is a bit Goth—into maroon lipstick, odd-colored hair, dark clothes and lots of attitude. She's even served time in jail. Sam soon finds all the doors that were once open to him in Blue Bay slammed in his face; he's ousted from his club, his current girlfriend dumps him, and her father (Robert Wagner) is Van Ryan’s lawyer. The home he's been struggling to make payments on is repossessed by the bank—one of whoseboard members is Sandra Van Ryan. The only lawyer he can find who'll take his place is cheerful Ken Bowden (Bill Murray), who works out of a storefront office, and bedecks his walls with photos of his satisfied customers—who all look like they were in ambulances when they first met Ken. He wears a neck brace himself, the better to fool insurance investigators. The case soon comes to trial.

However, since the trial is over about halfway through the movie, it’s clear "Wild Things" is up to more tricks than the question of whether handsome Sam Lombardo raped lusciously ripe Kelly Van Ryan or not. Eventually, people start getting murdered, in fact. The script by Stephen Peters is, on some levels, just getting started, because soon the movie starts going through more twists and turns than a plate of spilled spaghetti. Almost everyone is lying about something, and some of them have several lies going. The movie isn't even over when it says "The End"—be certain to stick around for a few final twists that actually restructure the entire story in just a few scenes.

It's a smart movie, and a funny one, too. There are a couple of bad laughs, as when Robert Wagner (in an unnecessary role) confronts Matt Dillon at the tennis club, but any movie that has Bill Murray playing a blithely sleazebag lawyer can't be entirely serious. "Wild Things" is an old-fashioned movie in that the plot is the central element, not the characters, who are at its mercy, but then that's the fun of such things. We try to stay ahead of the twists, which is also part of the fun, but McNaughton and Peters know this, and stay ahead of us all the way. But as mystery fans say, the movie is mostly "fairly clued:" a second viewing will reveal many shrewdly-planted details that pointed the way to some of the bigger surprises.

Director McNaughton is still best known for “Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer,” also about murder, also featuring a few twists, but the two movies are otherwise radically different. “Henry” is a grim, serious drama; “Wild Things” is a playful, even bouncy thriller of the old school, full of amusing if nasty characters, most of whom get exactly what is coming to them, and few of whom are what they seem to be at first. (Early on, Sam warns another character that no one is what they seem to be. Believe him.) When they don't turn out to be more naive than we thought, they're always much worse than we expected. And that's part of the fun: there's really only one character we can safely identify with in the movie, but we don't feel betrayed by the various treacheries -- we know it's part of the game in a movie like this. This was the peak of McNaughton’s career; even though it was successful, he somewhat mysteriously vanished into a few barely-released movies and television.

The Panavision photography by Jeffrey L. Kimball is glossy and expertly composed, while taking full advantage of the sets and locations. The colors are rich, the lighting is expressionistic rather than realistic; indeed, realism is kept at arm's length. Everyone and everything is a little better-looking than in reality, including the alligators and iguanas that McNaughton often cuts away to, evidently to suggest the cold-blooded and vicious nature of his main characters. Nothing, however, looks better than Richards emerging from a swimming pool in a see-through blue bathing suit, which leaves very little to the imagination. And this Blu-Ray disc makes everything even crisper and more striking than in previous standard-definition home video releases. Every bit of vegetation in the Everglades stands out, the textures of the skins of the reptiles and these rather reptilian girls are almost palpable. Beads of water and sweat on bare skin sing their own songs. The excellent sound is also well-captured. This movie was unknowingly made for HD television. Hot damn.

Matt Dillon, who grew from an almost sullen-looking boy to a sultry man, is well-cast as the skirt-chasing but evidently otherwise responsible teacher Sam Lombardo. There's something veiled, withdrawn, about Dillon's face; he often seems to be repressing something—in most movies, it's anger, but in "Wild Things" he's hiding many elements. Since this movie, he’s shown himself to be a reliable leading man, though he doesn’t work as often as his talent would suggest.

Denise Richards seemed inadequate as Carmen in "Starship Troopers," but is far better here as the heedlessly predatory Kelly Van Ryan, not half as smart—but even sexier—than she thinks she is. She imagines she’s in control of every situation, but she’s actually enslaved to her own desires and crippled by her naiveté. Kelly is a bitch, but she's a bitch-in-training; she thinks she's mature because she's so full of sexual drive it seems to be running down her chest like sweat, but she's really just a naive little girl. This is by far Richards’ best movie performance, so good that like McNaughton’s disappearance, it’s mysterious that she hasn’t done better in the decade since this was released; her career deflated somewhat after this.

Kevin Bacon is good, but it isn't a taxing role, though as with virtually everyone in the movie, there are hidden motives and depths to Ray Duquette. Like the others in the film, Bacon never quite tips his character's hand, keeping things veiled enough so that we accept his part in the twists of the plot.

Bill Murray is usually better when he's not the star of the proceedings; in most movies in which he's the leading character, the plots have to be built around his persona, but it's such an oddball one (part Bob Hope, part Groucho Marx) that they end up contrived and artificial: he has to end up a nicer guy than when he started. But Murray's stock in trade is being at once likable and an opportunistic heel; we don't want to see him reform—except in “Groundhog Day,” where his reformation was the plot. Casting him as an ambulance-chasing storefront lawyer was a stroke of genius: the role and Murray's persona mesh perfectly.

But the surprise delight of "Wild Things" is Neve Campbell. Of all the characters in the film, Suzie turns out to be the most complex. At first, she seems to be little more than a standard-issue high school rebel, a drop-out, a jailbird, a drug user, and a loner. But there's a great deal more to that; it's to Campbell's credit that while we're surprised by the various turns of plot, she's made Suzie complex enough from almost her first scene that we accept each new revelation. She’s since shown herself to be reliable and somewhat versatile; she’ll never be a major star, but she’ll always find work.

I was particularly pleased with McNaughton's direction: he's so firmly in control, so confident of what he's going after, that he can allow a scene to shift from drama to comedy and back again without a cut. While there are a couple of accidental laughs in the movie, all the rest are planned for, built into the film, because McNaughton is confident that he can pull us back whenever he wants. The kind of humor in the movie varies, too; sometimes we laugh at funny lines, sometimes at an edgy confrontation, and sometimes at the sheer brazenness of the characters, and then, finally, at the fascinating twists and turns McNaughton's movie takes. So why has he practically vanished?

"Wild Things" is far from flawless; it should have been maybe ten minutes shorter (and there is some evidence that scenes were cut), and the twists come so fast at the end that we're left a little dazed. Also, there are unexplained elements—not so much plot holes, as plot speed bumps. I couldn't figure out what was Kelly's intended final role, for example; there are one or two more questions of this nature that are left unanswered.

But "Wild Things" works far more than it doesn't, because it's simply so much fun to see all these wicked people doing all these wicked things to each other, in the hot Florida sun and the steamy Everglades swamps. It's flawed, it's no masterpiece, but as sheer, exuberant filmmaking, "Wild Things" is just fine.

It evidently did well at the boxoffice; two TV movies followed, “Wild Things 2” and “Wild Things: Diamonds in the Rough” (2005), these were follow-ups rather than sequels. No characters from the original turn up.

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