New Weird America: Something Wild (1986)

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To view Something Wild click here.

Something Wild (1986) is a road movie with a penchant for detours, keeping its eyes on the side roads and rest stops instead of the highway in front of it. A shapeshifting romantic-comic thriller, it adjusts its tone to the landscape, paying as a romcom in NYC, a chase film in Pennsylvania and a horror movie in Stony Brook. The only thing that ties together the film are the rest stops and delis the movie’s increasingly unhinged characters stop into for snacks, robberies, and a break from the world outside. Each location provides more subcultures for the insatiable eye of director Jonathan Demme to explore, whether it’s the tiny liquor store manager with a giant pipe or a duo of style conscious old thrift store biddies, Demme imbues every scene with indelible personalities, making the film a kind of American oddball panorama in which two star-crossed lovers keep criss-crossing through.

Jonathan Demme wasn’t sure he would make another big narrative film after Swing Shift (1984) was taken away from him by Warner Bros. It didn’t seem all the time and effort was worth it if he didn’t have any control over the final product. But he took another chance on Something Wild because he loved the script by E. Max Frye, about hip con artist Lulu (Melanie Griffith) who picks up and seduces a square banker named Charlie (Jeff Daniels) and encourages him to indulge his wild side, from childish dine-and-dash to slightly more dangerous subversions. It spins off into more intense and violent digressions from there, as Lulu’s sociopathic husband Ray (Ray Liotta) rages into the story, eager to seek vengeance on Charlie for absconding with his wife. Ranging from NYC to Pennsylvania to Virginia and back.

The further they get from NYC, the more their wardrobes shift – Charlie’s goes from drab brown suit to shorts and skeleton sunglasses, while Lulu transforms even more, from her severe black bangs and endless bracelets, to a spiky short blonde cut and a blue-and-white peasant dress. But while their outfits get more innocent, their actions tiptoe around legality. It is a film about the relationship between personality and place, how much we define ourselves by our past and present homes, and how much of what we thought was our true selves can shift when thrust into a new town, new clothes, and sitting next to a new girl. What seemed like a promising career track back in the city might now seem like prison.

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Demme loved to scour the locations of his shoots (Tallahassee stood in for PA) for local color, and the film is bursting with side characters I would be eager to watch a whole movie about. Such as the roly-poly biker who rides along with his dog, or the gas station attendant who recommends that Charlie buy some shorts. Jeff Daniels spoke to People Magazine in 1987 about the atmosphere on the set:

“‘Jonathan listens to any idea, no matter how idiotic. And he tries a lot of them, because sometimes they work,’ says Jeff Daniels, who co-starred in Something Wild with Melanie Griffith. “I might turn around and see this dog on a motorcycle or a black hitchhiker wearing a cowboy hat. You know you’re walking through a Jonathan Demme movie because of the things he puts behind you and around you. There’s an improvisational feeling to everything he does.”

That feeling translates to the screen, as it bursts with activity. As Charlie, Jeff Daniels channels Demme’s affable people person – he insists on calling strangers by their first name, trying to make each purely commercial transaction more of a personal one. Early on this just means he speaks to waitresses with a solicitous tone – but later on it plays a pivotal part in Charlie’s recovery. He has had his nose broken by Ray, and needs to change out of his bloody shirt. Ray Liotta, by the way, is a demonic ball of coiled energy, and in an interview with David Poland Frye recalled how Daniels was scared by him during their first rehearsal. He can seemingly flex his entire body into a fist – and he plunges it at Charlie repeatedly. Anyway, back to the present, with Charlie at the gas station. He addresses “Nelson” by name to fill up his career, and, bemused by this weird white guy in skeleton glasses, Nelson asks Charlie about his bloody shirt.

Charlie realizes the state of his outfit, and requests a whole new change of clothes, stripping down to his skivvies in the store while Nelson just deadpans, “Charlie, attempt to be cool.” That line is Charlie’s entire existence in a nutshell, straining to be cool but instead landing flat on his face. At least until Lulu showed up. Lulu is an enigma when we first see her, dressed like an extra in a Bangles video with a jangling array of bracelets and necklaces covering up her arms while her face is framed by jet black bangs. She looks like danger, and she is, but the further Lulu and Charlie drive, the more their lies start to wear out, and they begin to learn the truth about each other. By the end very little is left of either of them, both reduced to essential parts, Charlie retaining his gentle nature and Lulu her shapeshifting unpredictability. The NYC they return to is no longer the one they left – having lost the ability to lie about themselves they will have to reinvent themselves anew, adapting to the shifting city around them.

R. Emmet Sweeney

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3 Responses New Weird America: Something Wild (1986)
Posted By Doug : September 5, 2017 8:54 am

“Ray Liotta, by the way, is a demonic ball of coiled energy”
When he appeared, I drew back away from the screen, there in my theater seat. He was Menace.
Daniels was good, but I thought that the film belonged to Melanie Griffith.

Posted By kingrat : September 6, 2017 12:04 am

Emmet, thanks for an excellent essay on a strange, disturbing, and very well-made film.

Posted By George : September 7, 2017 6:21 pm

This movie and Scorsese’s AFTER HOURS would make a great double feature. Nerdy guys having misadventures with strange women seems to have been a mid-’80s preoccupation.

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