Wild Things

(John McNaughton, USA, 1998)


Here is a movie to challenge just about anybody’s critical sensibility.

It dives right in where many films would fear to tread – replete with moonlit shots of crocodiles in a Florida bayou, teen nymphets bounding out of swimming pools in slow motion and outrageous comic mugging from Bill Murray.

All this wrapped in an extravagant soap opera cum erotic thriller plot that cheats like crazy and features not one conventionally likeable character.

Director John McNaughton – previously known for the chilling anti-psychological explorations of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986/90) and the comedy-drama genre bending of Mad Dog and Glory (1993) – here well and truly blows his cool. Wild Things is a richly enjoyable piece of hokum that blends camp humour and low melodrama with the mind-boggling plot moves of Dario Argento and the structural cleverness of Tarantino.

It begins as a seemingly straight dramatic exploration of sexual harassment and sundry other "sex crimes". Sam (Matt Dillon) is a high school counsellor who spurns the unsubtle advances of rich kid Kelly (Denise Richards), and as a result faces a rape charge. To give away even the first of a long series of outlandish twists in the plot would spoil the fun – but, suffice to say, also involved are an over-heated cop (Kevin Bacon), a Céline-reading grunge-girl living in a trailer (Neve Campbell) and Kelly’s sluttish mother (Theresa Russell).

This is a movie that keeps turning in on itself, constantly unsettling our interpretation of events and our most basic understanding of the characters. Do not expect a film noir in the tradition of Double Indemnity (1944) or Body Heat (1981). McNaughton and writer Stephen Peters go way beyond the usual ruses and games of suspenseful narrative in order to produce a work that is all artifice, all surprise. It takes some goodwill on the viewer’s part to keep pace, but the effort is definitely worth it.

In previous films such as Henry and Normal Life (1996), McNaughton has often flirted with a cold, clinical, almost inhuman gaze upon the weird and wonderful acts of people lost in their own fuzzy obsessions. Here he enters the terrain of black, misanthropic comedy, somewhat reminiscent of Robert Altman or Joseph Mankiewicz at their darkest: life as a game of perpetual one-upmanship, with everyone ready to trade love for booty in a split-second.

This message is not exactly ennobling – but, then again, we need directors like McNaughton who play the flip side of the redemptive sentimentalism exemplified by Good Will Hunting (1997). Especially when they do so with the level of verve and enjoyment on display in Wild Things.

MORE McNaughton: Girls in Prison, Speaking of Sex

© Adrian Martin May 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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