In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1986 and seven from 1996 (the extra in December’s double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Radiantly human even as, and after, it erupts in violence and rage, 1986’s Something Wild remains an astonishing rarity – a bittersweet romantic tragicomedy that’s generally optimistic … but also hesitant and harmful exactly where it needs to be.
Here is a film that unabashedly, and sometimes bloodily, confronts its opposite-attracted leads with hard consequences of the personas and paths they claim to wear and walk. It arrives at a mostly happy ending, yes, but one that’s hard-earned and not without a bit of acid in its mouth.
The film’s characters, ideas, laughs and themes all grow mightily under its “hothouse of color,” as director Jonathan Demme appropriately, and poetically, has described his palette. The involvement of one of America’s finest filmmakers ensures Wild’s evolution into something far more thoughtful, challenging and idiosyncratic than its odd-couple setup suggests. (Want a version with all the verve sanded down? Madonna’s Who’s That Girl? fit the bill just a year later.)
Setting aside his commercial-creative clash with Goldie Hawn on Swing Shift,” few directors have enjoyed as creatively focused and fecund periods as Demme did from 1980 to 1993: Melvin & Howard, Stop Making Sense, Swimming to Cambodia, Married to the Mob, The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. A blend of popular appeal and prestigious acclaim, each different but all infused with Demme’s unique depiction of character motivation and narrative momentum via mise en scene.
Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) is a New York investment banker led on a whirlwind weekend of sex, tenderness and danger by a vivacious woman (Melanie Griffith) whom he first knows as Lulu, a bewigged brunette with Louise Brooks’ bob and Bettie Page’s body, and then Audrey, a blonde weathered by and worried about Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta), her hair-trigger, ex-con old flame.
However, one of many striking aspects of Something Wild is how the lives of others unfold around this main plot. Shopkeepers, hitchers, churchgoers, classmates, coworkers and clerks flit into frames – some silently, some for a few seconds, like a little girl who chimes in only to ask if Charlie is OK. But they all feel like real people near the set graciously asked to jump in for a few scenes, and they help ground Something Wild in a world of kindness, uncertainty and vitriol rather than a rundown of wacky hijinks.
Take a scene when Charlie, his nose broken and clothes bloodied, enlists a gas-station clerk named Nelson (Steve Scales) to help him swap his duds so he can more easily tail Ray, who has absconded with Audrey. This scene lasts maybe two minutes, but you see Nelson evolve into Charlie’s confidant, valet and inspiration during that span.
In a conventional film, this would have been just a transition, with the easy gag of Charlie stripping down to his skivvies in public. Here, Nelson’s generosity and encouragement makes it a crucial moment of Charlie’s fumbles toward confidence. (Scales is perfect, too, as Nelson, lending auxiliary, rhythmic life to the scene much as he did on percussion in Stop Making Sense, Demme’s Talking Heads concert film.)
Or how Demme uses passersby to illustrate a shift in who’s driving Charlie and Audrey’s destiny. Before Ray’s convenience store robbery to which they become unwitting accomplices, a group of bicyclists rides by their call. Soon after, a cabal of loud motorcyclists rumbles past. Charlie and Audrey are no longer propelled forward by their own energy, but by a fiery combustion they can’t necessarily control.
Although that sounds far headier than anything you’d want from any story adjacent to “romantic” and “comedy,” it’s nonetheless crucial to caring about what happens to Charlie and Audrey. What is love, after all, if not a mutually agreed-upon danger? (It’s unsurprising to read that Paul Thomas Anderson is a huge fan of this film, for you can see strains of its DNA in his outstanding Punch-Drunk Love.)
And to be fair, there plenty of light, funny moments throughout, namely any time Audrey, Charlie and / or Ray show up at any sort of restaurant; cinematographer Tak Fujimoto’s framing on a long-take escape from a fancy Italian place is especially amusing.
Even if it’s nearly an hour before Ray shows up, there’s still plenty to parse through, and playfully explore, with the pair for whom we’re rooting.
Don’t let Charlie’s new VP title fool you. He’s no master of the universe. An insecure apprentice to it on a good day, maybe. When he dines and dashes on a lunch tab, it’s not haughty indifference. It’s his way to bring comparatively harmless “rebellion into the mainstream” … or so he says. We later learn it’s his flirtation with the sort of chaos that he’s let consume him for so long.
But he first indulges in a more fleshly flirtation with Lulu, who catches and calls him out on his stiffed check. Before he knows it, the man claiming a wife and two kids has hopped into Lulu’s Hawaiian-upholstered convertible, blown off work with big deals yet to do, pulled belts from a bottle of scotch and found himself cuffed to a creaky bed in a cheap Jersey hotel with Lulu straddling him. To a guy like Charlie, Lulu feels like a pinball unexpectedly and thrillingly kept in play on one lucky quarter. Certainly that’s why her occasional references to a “he” on the edges of her life sail in one ear and out the other.
With arm jewelry resembling a resale-shop Cleopatra, Lulu exerts a pharaoh’s control over Charlie. Car crashed? She buys a new one. Out of money? Dupe a liquor store clerk and empty the till. Does Lulu mean to roll, troll or parole Charlie from his emotional paralysis? Hard to say initially, but both characters are beguiling – for each has a façade at which they mutually chip away and their chemistry is one of prodding discovery, not perfunctory drivel. (One nice touch of tit for tat: In the heat of passion, Lulu tears open Charlie’s T-shirt and hers in a show of shared attraction, not con-woman supremacy.)
But once they arrive in Pennsylvania, we learn Lulu’s real name is Audrey — and that she’s lured Charlie into her orbit as a sort of play-acted “husband” to present well for her mother (who sees right through that) and high school classmates at her 10-year reunion.
“It’s hard to imagine you growing up,” Charlie says. “What, you think I was born this way?” Audrey fires back. In one moment of wordless greatness, Charlie and Audrey silently gaze at each other — their expressions wondering how such a whirligig sprang forth from a place like this.
Demme and writer E. Max Frye envision Audrey’s class reunion as a sort of revisionist history, circumstantial cosplay in which people cloak themselves as someone with fewer regrets or compromises. Watching Charlie and Audrey dance is both joyous and heartbreaking. You spot Daniels ever so slightly glancing at those next to him as if to make sure he’s doing it “right,” whatever that may be. (“I had no idea Charlie had such a way with the ladies,” one coworker quips. “Neither did he,” Audrey says.) And as the class of 1976, it’s also fitting that this celebration of old glories unfolds beneath a seeming explosion of clearance-sale Old Glory kitsch.
Right when they seem to have found each other’s center, Ray arrives to throw them off — a spiky-haired black sheep scarred by acne and acrimony. He has anticipated this meeting well, for he knows Audrey will try to project an air of aristocracy. Paroled after five years for busting two-bit convenience stores, Ray learns (through happenstance) that Charlie does have kids, but they, and his wife, bailed long ago.
That knowledge would seem to lend an unbeatable upper hand to Ray, who seems an unstoppable force of nature a la Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona. But his nagging, very human insecurity undoes his advantage. Before Liotta’s face filled out into untrustworthy bloat, it carried a lean, boyish and wounded quality that he wields masterfully here — essaying danger but also caustic humor in Ray’s survival instincts. After a scene in which he’s stuck with a check and calls someone to bail him out, Demme cuts to a shot of Ray with a litany of beer bottles in front of him. Why not run up a debt another will pay?
We believe in the rage that has Ray, at one point, almost going through a wall in anger. But we also feel his pathos, too, scoffing at his classmates’ shackles of conformity (“What a dumb shit!” he howls over a man’s excitement to sell shoes in Iowa) while secretly yearning for something consistent with Audrey … even if that consistency means her silent obedience to every impulse on which he acts. In his mind, they’re Danny and Sandy. In reality, they’re just another pair pulled apart by raised voices and fists. Audrey is more firmly lodged as a fictitious construct in Ray’s mind than Lulu is in Charlie’s.
They are, however, still legally wed — a union in God’s eyes that, sadly, no man has yet dared tear asunder on Audrey’s behalf. And when she learns Charlie lied to her about being married, she assumes it’s her lot in life to remain with Ray and reluctantly resumes, rather than rejects, her rag-doll resignation. Griffith’s old-soul / youthful-beauty dichotomy has rarely been stronger.
As Charlie trails them, he keeps calling her Lulu even when he knows Audrey is her real name. Does he really want her, or is she but a token or totem of his question for self-assertion? Can he even handle Audrey, a woman who seems hopelessly devoted to chaos? No stranger to playing jerks or goofs, Daniels deftly dances a line of likability here as a man inspired to investigate his strength, albeit to an as-yet-unknown end, and for whom violence has never been an answer but almost certainly must be now.
It all comes to a head in Charlie’s suburban-New York home, with Ray literally crashing into suburbia and forcing Charlie’s hand in his quest to embolden and enlighten himself. It’s a deeply unsettling siege, in ways that foreshadow how deftly Demme navigated psychological horror in The Silence of the Lambs. He beats and cuffs Charlie, and muffles Audrey’s screams so forcefully you’re sure he’s going to suffocate her. Demme drains the previously vibrant colors here; Charlie’s clothes and legs are as white as the floor, rendering the blood rushing to his head and spilling from his body all the more noticeable.
This is an inescapable life-and-death scenario … and yet its resolution feels regrettable with absolutely nothing to cheer. It registers as inevitable, necessary and tragic, especially when Audrey finally claims Ray aloud as her husband and a decision with which she (and now Charlie) must truly, and forever, live.
The ideas and experiences these three characters endure together help Demme stick the landing without fail. But is it really happenstance that a woman named Audrey so quick to reinvent has again refashioned herself, this time in high-Hepburn style? Is she leaning into her true self … or just another iconic identity that isn’t her own? A new role, more polished artifice, a deeper eventual heartbreak?
Something Wild is simply too melancholy to not consider it, but also not so dismissive of Charlie and Audrey’s affection for each other that they couldn’t end up happily ever after. The result is another of Demme’s many masterworks – an eternally entertaining film that’s just spiky enough to prick and draw blood and an uncommonly gripping romance about rebellion, reinvention … and maybe redemption.