Something Wild

(Jonathan Demme, USA, 1986)


Something Wild is among the liveliest and most enjoyable movies of the 1980s. One could easily produce a schematic account of it – straight-laced guy Charlie (Jeff Daniels) liberated by wild gal Lulu (Melanie Griffiths), initiation into free-wheeling road-movie bohemia, looming threat of the past and of the mirror-rival (a figure we find, variously, in many mid ‘80s films including Black Widow [1987]), romantic comedy resolution – but its greatness lies in the way it scatters all the schemas.


I haven’t seen a film in ages where so much stuff is leaking out the sides, or where the so-called plot is so shamelessly a successive series of what-ifs made real (eg., what if Charlie and Lulus visit her mother and pretend they’re married?). Ray Liotta as the mirror rival (Lulu’s husband Ray) introduces mid-way into the film a truly remarkable rupture in tone (a brave thing for any movie to take on) and a whole series of inflections and distortions of every bit of sense previously set up: it seems OK for Lulu to mock Charlie’s middle class-ness, but when Ray takes up the chant, more viciously and with trouble in mind, bourgeois security doesn’t seem, after all, such a bad defence against resentful, freaked-out sociopathy.


But then, everything in Something Wild has another side, a sentimental and/or tough edge that is revealed in the picaresque course of proceedings. The city schmuck has been hiding for a few crucial facts and playing his own games; the “wild thing” can adapt her own performance (sincerely as well as playfully) to suit her hometown, and has her own base-line moral code, however contradictory; the bad guy is mesmerisingly charming and smart. The film just keeps on re-inventing itself before our eyes – recasting its characters, its tone and its genre.


And there is truly the vision of a whole new world (richly inscribed, described and felt) here: a world of colours, rhythms, architectural angles, songs, strategies of behaving in the moment, games, apparitions. My favourite bit – perfect mixture of ease and hysteria that keeps the entire film afloat – happens when Charlie, eyes fixed on the plot-move outside the window, begins changing his pants in a petrol station supermarket; the black shop attendant, humouring these antics as best he can, ventures: “Attempt to be cool!”


Something Wild keeps deliberately blowing its cool – yet it finds, in the movements of its hot-footed dance, a grace rarely seen or heard before on screen. It is this grace, magically won beyond the fixed constraints of identity or plot, that finally allows us to break free of the vicious circles of mirror-rivalry.

MORE Demme: The Agronomist, The Manchurian Candidate, The Truth About Charlie, Ricki and the Flash, Beloved

© Adrian Martin March 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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