"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 13, 2011

"Something Wild" (1986) by Jonathan Demme (Film review)

There is one itch we all may have now and then: the wish to get away from it all, if even for a few hours. After lunch, standing in the sunshine outside, you suddenly don't want to go back to your office, but instead lie on the grass in a park, or depart town for the nearest hills and hiking course. On the spur of the moment, you really would like to step out of your humdrum life and do something unexpected. Well, most of us never act on this, perhaps because some additional incentive is necessary. For example, a beautiful, unknown woman who suddenly offers you a ride...

That is what happens to strait-laced yuppie banker Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) in Something Wild (helmed in 1986 by Jonathan Demme, who five years later would become famous for Silence of the Lambs) when he meets sexy, wild woman Lulu Hankel (Melanie Griffith). She looks like Louise Brooks from Pandora's Box plus African jewelry for hippie effect, so he should have been warned. Instead of driving him back to his Manhattan office, she in fact kidnaps him and takes him on a wild road trip, indulging in petty crime. Although he keeps protesting, he seems to enjoy the little adventures she exposes him to - including a scene with manacles in a motel.

The Friday afternoon turns into weekend, and she not only keeps him away from his job but also from his wife and children (as he weakly protests). On Saturday, Lulu has him pose as her husband and visit her sweet, knowing mother ("See, Mamma? Just the kind of man you said I should marry"), as well as join a rather silly high school reunion.

There the genre changes from road movie to noir when they run into Lulu's violent husband Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta), who is just fresh out of prison - of course she never mentioned to Charles that she already had a husband. Her buddy wants his wife back and does his own kidnap act - one fraught with real danger. Ray is a guy who oozes violence and sadism from all his pores. The silly game Lulu was playing with Charles turns serious.

In the final part of the movie, another, more rebellious side of Charlie surfaces – he also has a marital secret: his wife is in fact divorcing him and has run away with the kids - and he fights Ray with all he has on behalf of Lulu. It is literally a fight to the death, but as this film was made in Hollywood, we all know how it will end. Yes, and he gets her, too.

Despite the kink in the middle, this is a film that will keep your eyes glued to the screen. It has excellent acting by all three protagonists. Ray is violence incarnate, with a menacing shrewdness; Daniels is exactly the right comic type for the conventional, square guy; and Melanie Griffith is the star of the film, both alluring and dangerous, and totally reckless - she really looks as if she might do anything. Director Demme has infused the film with the right amount of weirdness and black humor.

A pity that this kind of off-beat movie can't be made anymore in today's degenerate Hollywood, which is dominated by safe, "template" stories and cardboard characters and therefore only turns out forgettable junk. Not to speak of bringing a “three-dimensional” woman like Melanie Griffith to the screen...
Something Wild is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)