Wild Things is trash. But it’s a kind of exquisite trash. It’s the best Cinemax-style soft porn ever made. It’s called a neo-noir, though I don’t think it really is because noir carries with it a moral vision. Wild Things has an amoral vision.
The story begins with an almost thudding dullness. Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) is the sexiest guidance counselor at a south Florida high school. The girls clearly want him to guide them into very specific positions. Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) has him in her sights. She engineers an encounter… but the screen fades to black, and she leaves his home with tears in her eyes. She claims she’s been raped.
Her mother Sandra is a very rich woman in town. She’s also a former lover of Sam’s. When talking to the police she says, “That son of a bitch must be insane to think he can do this to me.” Prize-winning mother.
It’s a circumstantial case. The two vice cops assigned to it are divided. Duquette (Kevin Bacon) is sure Lombardo is scum, but his partner Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega) isn’t buying it. Frankly, she seems to have a crush on the man, and doesn’t want to think poorly of him.
All doubts seem to be erased when Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell), another of Sam’s students, says he’d also raped her. She has a history with Duquette, who arrested her the previous year for possession, but confesses the assault to him. It goes to trial, but Suzie breaks under the onslaught of Sam’s attorney Bowden (Bill Murray) – there were no rapes. Not her, not Kelly. It was all a revenge plot against Sam.
This is a hell of a lot of plot already, and the movie is only about a third of the way in. Some of the twists and turns it takes are evident in the trailer (along with the famous three-way scene where Denise Richards displays her biggest talents.) Some are far from evident until the mid-credits scenes roll, filling in the blanks.
There’s a lot of Florida in Wild Things – alligators, the Everglades. Shorts, short-sleeve shirts, sweat. Sailing and ships relate to freedom, sometimes in sly ways. Sam claims he made his way through college working on ships. There’s a murder on a dry-docked ship, and later violence on a sailboat where sailing acumen proves important. And then doesn’t. And then does in a triple twist in a film made almost entirely of twists.
What makes Wild Things, in my opinion, not really a noir is the absence of a moral center. There is a cycle of victims: the supposedly raped girls, then the supposedly wrongly accused man. Then the obsessed police officer who is putting his job on the line to get the truth. But all of them have their own secrets, their own little twists. Maybe the only uncompromised character is Perez, Duquette’s partner. But she is also blind, and unable to see any important part of the real story until it no longer matters.
This film was directed by John McNaughton. It’s his most financially successful film, though his best regarded is still his first non-documentary feature, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. That movie had such a grim tone that, famously, the MPAA said no cuts could give it an R rating. Wild Things has just as specifically realized a tone, though this is licentious indulgence.
The characters and performances can best be described as two-note, and that’s deliberate. Everyone is playing a two-face, and the heightened reality of the film doesn’t really leave room (or need) for nuance.
What it has is enjoyable sleaze. When Kelly and her friend come to wash Sam’s jeep, they don’t hesitate to soak themselves (and their white clothes) with their hoses. And the camera doesn’t mind lingering on Denise Richard’s body as she emerges from a pool. It’s sensual, it’s sexy, and it doesn’t for a minute pretend to being classy. Wild Things is overheated Florida crime fiction, and it does not apologize.
Wild Things has been released on 4K by Arrow Video. There are two versions of the film: the theatrical edition (1:48) and the unedited edition (1:55). Extras include a pair of commentaries: a new commentary with director John McNaughton and producer Steven A. Jones and an archival commentary with those participants and cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball, producer Rodney Liber, editor Elena Maganini and compose George S. Clinton. Video extras include a new interview with John McNaughton (27 min), a new interview with Denise Richards (14 min), Archival On-site interviews (4 min), “An Understanding Lawyer Outtakes” (1 min). The back of the box advertises a Making-of documentary, but I couldn’t find it on the disc (it might be the on-site interviews, which hardly constitutes a documentary.) There’s also a booklet with some essays on the film.
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