Director: John McNaughton. Cast: Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, Denise Richards, Kevin Bacon, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Theresa Russell, Bill Murray, Carrie Snodgress. Screenplay: Stephen Peters.
I have a dream that one day the Writers Guild won't just be a society of screenwriters, but a mandatory
check-point for anyone in greater Los Angeles who's armed and dangerous with a typewriter. I dream that
this remodified Guild, this proving ground of would-be Screen Scribes, might organize itself around a
small set of compulsory tutorials, or of required-reading manuals, one of which would have to be
calledhave to be, have to be, have to be! called"So You Wanna Write a Plot Twist?"
Stephen Peters, conjurer of the God-awful Wild Things, needs this class, because he is currently,
woefully enrolled in the Joe Eszterhas Akademy of Cheap-Trick Trash. I don't generally consider personal
attacks fair in film reviews (unless they're aimed at Joe Eszterhas), and screenwriting is such a horribly
underappreciated and consistently bastardized craft in today's Hollywood, that Stephen Peters may not in
fact have produced what I knowand what hopefully you will never knowas Wild Things. For all I
know, Stephen Peters doesn't even exist; if he does, he definitely shouldn't admit to it.
Because here's the thing: Wild Things is more (or less, if you prefer) than a film that doesn't
make sense. It is a film which maintains total and complete scorn for the very concept of Sense, debasing
the notion as fully as it does other concepts like Character, Audience, and Story. There is no way to
write a review in this vein and not leave oneself utterly vulnerable to attacks of snobbery,
over-seriousness, and hoity-toity élitism. But Wild Things commits in nearly every scene some
version of deliberate dishonesty and/or actual misanthropy, the very two acts which, to my mind, a movie,
much like an individual, should never feel entitled to commit.
Wild Things, like the recent, uneven, but entertaining and easily superior Palmetto, is a palm-treed, pink-and-aqua, Florida neo-noir. In a community
called Blue Baya "town" that's really just a country club writ largehigh school guidance counselor Sam
Lombardo (Matt Dillon) has been accused of sexual misconduct with a student. Kelly Van Ryan (Starship
Troopers' Denise Richards), a curvaceous vixen-in-training who loves cutoff shorts, lusts after Sam,
and hates dry clothes, runs out of his little stucco hut one afternoon, claiming to most anyone who will
listen that he forced himself upon her after she washed his car. (Don't ask.)
As unlikely as her claim seemsa far more feasible scenario would have had her raping himwe
realize as viewers that, whatever her behavior, we cannot say for sure that Kelly is lying. Sam has
enjoyed Kelly's romps in the soapsuds almost as much as director John McNaughton has. (Only by adhering to
the Hollywood principle that high-school students must be played by actors in their mid-20s does his film
separate itself from kiddie porn.) Kelly's claims gain further, unlikely support from a classmate named
Suzie (Neve Campbell), a Fairuza Balk-type resident ofagain meeting Hollywood criteriathe requisite
trailer-park that all but borders a million-dollar-real-estate community. Suzie, it seems, was also raped
by Sam Lombardo.
While the film, in these early chapters, is not quite what one usually means by "compelling," it at least
sets the stage for a nervy plot of threats and counterthreats, disentangling how Lombardo will defend
himself, what reason he or Kelly or particularly Suzie might have for lying, and whether or not Denise
Richards owns a garment that covers her knees. (Faux-parochial socks don't count.)
But now, having raised this scenario, Wild Things takes the cheapest possible way out, doffing its
potential as mystery, thriller, or even legal drama to reveal itself as... Horndog Testosterone Fantasy!
And I do mean "doffing"; too much scene description threatens to reveal the plot of Wild Things,
but what most of the lead actors reveal (heh-hem) of themselves is the only conceivable reason why anyone
would stick around for two hours to find out.
Now it's time for me to attack my own last sentence. The uses of the words "scene" and
"plot" both suggest some level of planning, organization, or at least continuity between one event
and another. Neither, of course, are necessary, if you just want to get some T&A on celluloid, and since
one could argue that this style of eroticism is all about messy exhilaration, what the heck,
Unfortunately, Wild Things is so creakily, predictably constructed to arouse the libido that no one
involved could care less about engaging your brain, or even raising your pulse. Why would a murderer
terrified of surveillance or detection, and suspicious of betrayal, forfeit her misgivings in time for a
steamy lovefest in an open-air pool with the very girl she suspects of turning her in? How could a
3-way sex scene be so boring? Wild Things is an impossibly braindead and frustratingly
closed-off experience: watching it feels like being forced to observe someone else's way-uncreative
white-bread adolescent sex-fantasy. The film tries to conclude with some self-congratulatingly
"shocking" twists that are all the more depressing for their wheezy desperation to shock. The best
thrillers work because the characters' circumstances grow tighter and more dangerous; because Wild
Things decides so early that anything goes as long as it photographs well, the whole enterprise sinks
in its own consuming permissiveness.
And even though I feel like I am always harping on this, a "plot twist" only works if it is, in fact, a
twist, not an arbitrary change or a careless, choppy break. The effects can be dazzling when a
story takes an unforeseen turn, an interesting detour, or an unexpected stop. Just like a road, though, a
story shouldn't turn so suddenly and severely that it's impossible for us to make the turn. What Wild
Things perpetrates is even worse: "twists" that, in order to be true, necessitate that earlier scenes
could never have happened. In the roadway analogy, this kind of screenwriting reminds me more than
anything of that scene in The Apostle where Robert
Duvall secures the accelerator to the floor, jumps from his car, and watches it charge straight into a
shallow, muddy lake.
When, then, does Wild Things reach its nadir? Maybe when McNaughton inserts his first close-up of a
just-sealed bullet wound, his thirtieth shot of Denise Richards' nipples, or his plagiaristic
carbon-copying of the rope-in-the-water shot from Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear, a Floridian
suspense film as rigorous and invigorating as this one is lifeless.
Maybe the low-point comes when good ol' Denise cries crocodile tears
over her dearly departed dad, or when the once-great Carrie Snodgress and Rent's up-and-coming
Daphne Rubin-Vega are forced to recap the insensible plot as if they really understood (or cared about)
what happened. Or maybe it's in every single moment that Theresa Russell, as Kelly's alcoholic mother,
shows up to impersonate Kathleen Turner playing Joan Crawford in a Miami Mommie Dearest. On the
brighter side, the low-point is definitely NOT one of the scenes when Matt Dillon tries to play
steel-jawed convictionit's always punchy to watch the poor guy flail around in anything without Gus Van
If this review reads as cruelly and cynically as it feels while I write it, then that may highlight
the ultimate failing of Wild Things. By completely divesting its characters of any human qualities,
by using cheap pathos and sleazy nudity as substitutes for anything resembling personality or conflict,
Wild Things is one of those thankfully rare pictures that makes every man and woman it portrays
seem hollow and insubstantial. One tramples on movies like Wild Things because they are so willing
to trample their own characters, to sideline what they might really think or wish in service to a
demanding Plot that doesn't care about any of them. The single act of promise McNaughton's film fulfills
is that implicit in its title: the characters in his story are never really people, just mechanized,
manipulated, sloppy, wild things. What's thrilling about that?
Feed it to the gatorsWild Things is all dead meat. D
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actor (Murray; tie; also cited for Rushmore)