On the surface, Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild might seem like an odd choice for the filmmaker’s inaugural Criterion Collection release. Yet upon closer inspection, Demme’s unsung and often overlooked Wild card work of ‘80s cinematic iconoclasm of the countercultural existential yuppie nightmare variety (think Blue Velvet, Blood Simple, After Hours, Paris, Texas, Lost in America) proves to be something of a zeitgeist title.
As such, Criterion’s colorful warm-weather release of road movie madness taps into what sets him apart as a storyteller, thus begging a more careful reading of Demme’s deceptively simple contemporary cult classic which pays tongue-in-cheek homage to yellow brick route ‘66s and rabbit holes Out of the Past filled with Pandora’s boxes and Louise Brooks bobs.
An intentionally sexy screwball noir turned thriller dramedy, Wild signifies Demme’s transition from pop culturally in-tune documentaries and slice-of-life character studies like Stop Making Sense and Melvin and Howard to sociologically inclined edgier fare that provoked strong international response from terror to empathy and back again in Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia respectively.
A genre blurring rollercoaster, Something Wild barrels down the same tracks twice – the second time in reverse – as first time screenwriter and then-recent NYU graduate E. Max Frye’s intricately planned puzzler uses similar locales, plot points as well as some of the exact same dialogue to which we’d been initially introduced to inventive, intriguing and at times downright ironic effect.
By matching the lusty abandon of Wild’s first half with an impending sense of doom in the second loopy go-round, Frye crafts an endlessly fascinating if admittedly flawed and by its very nature unevenly unstable minor Demme masterpiece where up is down and left is right.
Seducing a stranger right along with the audience, Wild features Melanie Griffith in a pre-Working Girl/post-Body Double breakout role as a risk-taking, fast talking hedonist named Lulu who picks up a seemingly straitlaced businessman (Jeff Daniels) with a compulsion for seeing how many small crimes and cheap thrills he can get away with under the guise of yuppie pretense and politeness.
Ignoring all advice not to talk to strangers as well as traffic ordinances and good sense, Daniels’ corporate dullard Charlie is more than happy to play the part of Lulu’s sudden love slave, playing hooky from cubicle life, an unseen wife and ‘80s suburbia in favor of stolen hooch and a cheap hotel room that turns into an impromptu road trip back ten years to Lulu’s high school reunion in small town main street USA.
Just one of several turns on a roadmap we realize we haven’t seen before, by the time Demme’s second unorthodox ‘80s outsiders-on-the-road movie hits its halfway point, we’re no longer sure just who’s playing who once Lulu’s screw-loose old flame appears on the scene in the form of a devilish and diabolical Ray Liotta.
Singlehandedly bringing Film Noir into Demme’s contemporary spin on Stanwyck and Sturges style screwball, Liotta’s presence throws us for a major loop, nearly taking the film into Coen or Lynchian territory, switching the tone from howlingly comedic to twisted and sardonic, making us reevaluate all that had come before it as Frye revisits the same paradigm setup in a new light.
An all-around oddity, Demme’s Wild will most certainly divide film fans that prefer to avoid pictures that don’t play by genre rules. Yet even though Wild threatens to jump the tracks as it careens into a jarring and surprisingly violent climax worthy of black and white Robert Mitchum-flavored Film Noir, if you grab onto something and ride it out, there’s no underestimating Wild’s ability to thrill from the first uphill climb to the second run-through along the tracks.
Given a crisp, clean if sonically underwhelming Blu-ray high definition transfer, while Wild may be light on Criterion Collection bonus features, Demme’s sinfully smart, singularly suspenseful, seductively silly film is Something extraordinarily unexpected and indefinably wild to behold all the same.
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