07th Feb2018

‘Something Wild’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith, Ray Liotta, Dana Preu, Margaret Colin | Written by E. Max Frye | Directed by Jonathan Demme

something-wild-blu

Jonathan Demme was one of the great names of cinema lost in the terrible artistic purge of 2017. His last film of note might have been the forgettable Ricki and the Flash, but there was a period, between 1986’s Something Wild and Philadelphia in 1993 – via no less than Silence of the Lambs – when the director could do no wrong.

Something Wild begins with New York businessman Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) making a mildly rebellious decision: he chooses to not pay for his restaurant meal. A beautiful stranger, Audrey (Melanie Griffith), calls him out. They argue. They connect. She invites (or possibly kidnaps) him to join her on a crazy road trip, heading south with no destination but the next motel, causing moderate chaos along the way. They’re not quite Bonnie and Clyde, but they’re definitely not your regular rom-com couple.

Then they collide with a blast from the past: Audrey’s husband, Ray (Ray Liotta), who’s just emerged from prison. Ray isn’t best pleased with Audrey’s new mate. Audrey was his possession, Ray thought. The question is, has Audrey unlocked sufficient passion in Charlie for him to stand up and fight for her? Does Charlie’s newfound love for Audrey mean he’ll risk going toe-to-toe with tough guy Ray?

In many ways this is a film of its time: the snare-heavy John Cale soundtrack, the haircuts, the loose suits, the pop art titles and the rat race anxieties. But in other ways it prefigures the quick-witted, absurdist, character-based crime thriller boom of the 1990s, popularised by Quentin Tarantino. Specifically, the influence on True Romance is clear, but for me this is the smarter and more sincere film. Possibly deliberately, the most satisfying part of the narrative is the first half, when Charlie and Audrey are trying to work each other out, and falling for each other. Though their personalities are ostensibly on opposite ends of the spectrum, their romance offers some neat observations on the nature on love: namely, the fantasies we provide for and seek to satisfy for each other.

Charlie is in emotional lockdown since a traumatic event last year. His bubble of work-life security protects his vulnerability. Audrey sparks rebellion in him. For her part, Audrey has lived a life of impulsivity and recklessness. She is attracted to Charlie because he can offer some kind of stability. So, her desire to draw the crazy out of Charlie is also an appeal for him bring her calm. In one scene, he replaces the whisky in her hand with a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.

The film is refreshingly even-handed, refusing to stray into romantic comedy conventions. On one hand, it reverses the cliché of the buttoned-up princess learning to live through the carefree, rock star male; but equally it doesn’t push to the other extreme of turning Audrey into a idealised dream girl. She is a woman with a history; seductive, but with serious personality flaws.

As Charlie, Daniels gives an excellent, twitchy, detailed performance. His safe routines threatened, Charlie’s form never settles. Audrey, by comparison, is almost serene in her extrovert behaviour. Paradoxically, Griffith’s performance is the more subtle, more internalised. She tells Audrey’s story through the lostness in her eyes; and she speaks as if programmed, not quite from the heart, like there’s a hidden sensitivity lying in wait.

Then there’s Liotta, delivering a truly menacing performance as the dangerously jealous ex. His classical good looks and dark eyes mean he’s a perfect piece of casting. Liotta’s physicality is astonishing here – he moves like a snake, always with tense muscular certainty, as if he might deliver a killing blow at any moment.

The film is gorgeously shot by legendary DP Tak Fujimoto. His camerawork is beautifully fluid and he makes the back roads of Pennsylvania and Virginia gorgeous to behold, without losing the eye-level immediacy of the character study. It’s what makes this a modern fable rather than a fairy tale.

One could argue that E. Max Frye’s script doesn’t quite carry all the way through, drifting into formula in the second half. The final showdown is the basic template for many a home invasion thriller. But again, we must remind ourselves that Demme’s film predates Fatal Attraction, the phenomenon that would trigger the tsunami of domestic thrillers with their stab ‘n’ strangle finales. Something Wild has never quite got the respect it deserves.

Until now, one hopes, thanks to Criterion. This is a very enjoyable small movie with big ideas. It’s well-directed and nicely shot. But more than anything it’s a triumph of casting – there’s no one else you can see in the three main roles, and they all deliver. Like its main characters, it is contradictory, yet it functions against the odds: formulaic and fresh in equal measure; intimate yet outward-looking; a product of its time yet a template for the future. A classic, but a secret one.

Extras are scarce but precious: separate interviews with director Jonathan Demme and writer E. Max Frye.

Something Wild  is out on Blu-ray from Criterion now.

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