Something Wild

US | 1986 | Directed by Jonathan Demme

Logline: A free-spirited woman coerces a man into joining her on a weekend of fun and adventure, until the woman’s ex-con husband appears on the scene. 

Jonathan Demme began his filmmaking career in exploitation, most notably the cult women-in-prison flick Caged Heat (1974). He has made dozens of features, documentaries, and television episodes, and while he is most famous for directing The Silence of the Lambs (1991), it is this comedy-thriller-romance that remains his most colourful, surprising, and entertaining. It’s a riot from start to finish, an instant cult classic, thirty years young. 

Charlie (Jeff Daniels) is a yuppie, a city slicker, with a suit that itches. He thinks he’s got away without paying the bill at a cafe, but out on the sidewalk Lulu (Melanie Griffith) grabs him by the collar and hits him up for doing a runner. There’s an instant attraction of sorts, or at the least, some kind of curious tension. Lulu offers to drive him back to the office, and that’s where it all goes pear-shaped. Or maybe that should it be grapefruit-shaped? 

Lulu is a sassy opportunist, which is putting it mildly. Charlie is a gullible fool, with a heart of gold. Together they hit the high road outta town. But both are harbouring secrets, and soon enough the layers will be peeled back, and it’ll be all hands on deck, there might even be tears before bedtime, if Lulu’s dangerous husband Ray (Ray Liotta) has anything to say about it. He’s fresh out of prison, and keen to get back in the saddle. 

E. Max Frye penned the screenplay while he was still in film school. Demme committed to making it almost immediately, and a studio deal was struck very quickly. While Kevin Kline was considered for the role of Charlie, Chris Isaak was going to play Ray, but dropped out. I don’t think either of those guys could’ve brought the same kind of wonderful nuances that Daniels and Liotta did. In fact, both of them, and Griffiths, all deliver fantastic, career performances, and all three were nominated for a Golden Globe. 

One of the surprising elements is a score composed by Laurie Anderson and John Cale. But, the most notable surprise is in the movie’s brilliantly constructed and handled tone, which shifts dramatically after the half-way mark when Ray enters the movie, at the high school reunion Lulu takes Charlie along to. Liotta exudes such an implicitly volatile energy (something he’s brought to later movies many times over) that what has been a happy-go-lucky, quirky, odd couple-buddy flick, suddenly shifts gears and becomes a menacing thriller. 

There are some very funny scenes, and there are a bunch of amusing cameos/bit parts, including filmmakers John Sayles, as a motorcycle cop (although you’ll be hard-pressed to recognise him behind the police-issue shades), and John Waters, as a used car salesman (perfect casting!), also character legends Walter Tracey as a country squire, and Charles Napier as an irate chef. Special note must go to the high school reunion band, The Feelies, whom I was briefly convinced was Talking Heads in musical disguise (Demme had directed Stop Making Sense a couple of years earlier). 

Something Wild is one of those rare mix-genre creatures; perfectly cast, wonderful dialogue that rings true with humour and authenticity, and dynamic direction that captures a real sense of urgency and playfulness, yet can pull a punch and pull the rug out when the moment demands. I was never much of a fan of either Daniels or Griffith, but, let me tell you, if you’ve never seen this movie, do yourself a favour, Something Wild is definitely something wicked.