Something Wild (1986)

Director: Jonathan Demme
Adaptation: E. Max Frye
Stars: Jeff Daniels (Charles Driggs), Melanie Griffith (Lulu / Audrey Hankel), Ray Liotta (Ray Sinclair), Dana Preu (Peaches), Margaret Colin (Irene), Jack Gilpin (Larry Dillman), Su Tissue (Peggy Dillman), Leib Lensky (Frenchy), Robert Ridgely (Richard Graves), Kenneth Utt (Dad), Adelle Lutz (Rose), Charles Napier (Irate Chef), Jim Roche (Motel Philosopher), John Sayles (Motorcycle Cop), John Waters (Used Car Guy)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1986
Country: U.S.
Something Wild Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Something WildWho better to direct a screwball comedy about personal reinvention than Jonathan Demme, a filmmaker who seems to change hats with every film he makes? Having begun his career in the Roger Corman school of efficient exploitation (1974’s Caged Heat), he graduated to quirky off-Hollywood comedy (1980’s Melvin and Howard) and mixed with music videos and concert documentaries (the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense) before exploding into the wider cultural consciousness with The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which is still the preeminent thriller par excellence. Demme’s career has thus been defined by his refusal to be defined, whether by subject, style, or theme. He constantly presents a new facet of his technical artistry and cinematic personality, which is why each new film he makes, whether good or not so good, is a kind of revelation.

In this regard, Something Wild is one of Demme’s most crucial films, not only because of the manner in which the story, written by E. Max Frye, mimics Demme’s own penchant for slipping mercurially amongst multiple cinematic identities, but also because it came at a difficult point in his career. His most recent film, Swing Shift (1984), a well-budgeted Hollywood period piece with stars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, was taken away from him in postproduction and re-edited, much to his dismay, and he was at a point when he was considering giving up filmmaking entirely. Instead, he took on Frye’s script, a first effort from a recent NYU graduate that takes a familiar screwball premise--a kooky, independent woman latches onto and unleashes the inner id of a repressed workaholic man--and turns it upside down in every conceivable way. The beauty of Frye’s script is that you never know where it’s going; the film veers left every time you think it’s going right, and just when you think you have it all figured out, something completely unexpected happens. The tones shift rampantly, which for some viewers can be disorienting and off-putting. But, if you’re in tune with Demme’s aesthetic, which usually runs counter to our cinematic intuition, it is a wild ride indeed.

The film opens in a Manhattan luncheonette where we meet Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels), the very epitome of the upwardly mobile, Reagan-era yuppie. Conservatively suited in gray and looking very respectable, he nonchalantly stiffs the restaurant by pocketing the check and walking out, a move that is noticed only by Lulu (Melanie Griffith), who is in every way Charles’s opposite (or is she?). Decked out in a mishmash of styles and pounds of exotic jewelry that can only be described as “loud,” Lulu is best defined by her dark, bob haircut, which (along with her name) inescapably connect her with Louise Brooks, the sexually charged and fiercely independent American silent movie star best known for her iconic role in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929). Lulu is Pandora, all right, except the box she’s opening is Charlie (as she calls him), who has too long been sitting on his wild urges and refusing to let them run rampant.

The movie jigs and jags over a weekend, taking us from Manhattan to Pennsylvania, where Lulu changes her appearance to a sweet-faced, small-town blonde in order to introduce Charlie to her mother (Dana Preu), who knows much more than she lets on, before taking him to her 10th high school reunion. It is there that the story is twisted into something entirely different by a new kink: Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta), Lulu’s former love interest who has recently gotten out of prison and is determined to reclaim her as his own. To describe much more would risk ruining the film’s primary pleasures in unexpected revelations, but suffice it to say that Charlie comes into his own in facing down Ray, who represents the psychotic, sadistic extremes of the wild life that Lulu so eagerly embraces. This involves the real threat of violence, which feels strange and perplexing in what is otherwise an offbeat romantic comedy, but the threat is necessary for the material to work. Refusing to let the film be pigeonholed, Demme shifts it from genre to genre, taking us from road movie to crime thriller before we know it. Sometimes the shifts are almost surreally well marked (notice what happens to the lights at the reunion just before Ray shows up), and at other times they are so subtle that we’re deep into the next act before we realize the previous act had ended.

Something Wild works because, despite the mania in evidence, Demme maintains a firm command of the material, never letting it spiral out of his control. This is accomplished partially by a notable restraint in cinematic style; many a lesser director would try to amp up the stylistics to match the narrative overkill, but Demme and his longtime cinematographer Tak Fujimoto recognize the necessity of balance, and instead of pummeling us with the camera, they let the actors do most of the heavy lifting. Casting, in this regard, was crucial, and Demme scored a triple with Daniels, fresh off Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1984); Griffith, who had turned heads as the porn star in Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984); and Liotta, who had never appeared on screen before, but plays Ray with such charming and seductive sadism that you would think he was a veteran. They come together in a twisted triangle of desire, with Charlie trying to reinvent himself as the hero and Ray trying to reclaim the life he thinks he deserves (one of the film’s most pertinent subtexts is the obvious class antagonism between Charlie the yuppie and Ray the working-class criminal, which allows the film to transcend any labels of being a one-note “yuppie nightmare”). They are, in effect, flip sides of the same coin, each using an exterior façade (Charlie’s being smug complacency while Ray’s is snarling criminality) to mask a deep vulnerability inside. And caught in the middle is Lulu, who, contrary to most set-ups of this sort, never becomes just an object to be claimed. She’s too fierce, too independent, too resolutely herself. Louise Brooks would be proud.

Something Wild Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-Ray
Something Wild is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.78:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio stereo surround
  • Video interview with director Jonathan Demme
  • Video interview with writer E. Max Frye
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic David Thompson
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMay 17, 2011

    Criterion’s new high-definition transfer of Something Wild, which was supervised by director Jonathan Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, was taken from a 35mm interpositive newly struck from the original negative. The result is duly impressive, without doubt the best I have ever seen the film look. As befitting its era, Something Wild is an undeniably bright film, boasting strong primary colors throughout that look fantastic in 1080p. The colors pop, but never bleed. The transfer also handles the darker scenes in the film’s second half very well, giving us solid shadow detail and strong blacks that never look muddy. The film has been given some digital restoration, but it still maintains a strong, filmlike presence with an ample veneer of grain. The stereo soundtrack, mastered at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic master and digitally restored, sounds great, as well. The film boasts all or part of close to 50 songs on the soundtrack, ranging from straightforward rock, to reggae, to New Wave pop, all of which sound sharp and well defined.
    The supplements are, unfortunately, a little bit light. In lieu of an audio commentary we have a 33-minute interview with Demme, who discusses his career prior to Something Wild, the film’s production, and his general thoughts on filmmaking (I especially enjoyed listening to him discuss his Roger Corman-influenced penchant for casting the smallest of roles with familiar actors and making those roles stand out). There is also a 13-minute interview with screenwriter E. Max Frye, who discusses the process of writing the script and the slight changes that were made on its journey from page to screen. Otherwise, the only supplement on the disc is the original theatrical trailer, which, like many ’80s trailers, is pretty awful.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © MGM and The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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