Wild Things
First screened and reviewed in March 1998
Director: John McNaughton. Cast: Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, Denise Richards, Kevin Bacon, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Theresa Russell, Bill Murray, Carrie Snodgress. Screenplay: Stephen Peters.

Twitter Capsule: Maybe a smart, subversive provocation hides inside this superficially sexy, fatally clumsy affair? I couldn't find it.

VOR:   If you wrote a dissertation about American garishness, or about how LGBT-based legal breakthroughs were fueling new mainstream appropriations of sex for lame titillation, this would be a chapter.

Ed. June 2014: Ever wonder what you sounded like as a deeply censorious undergraduate? Maybe the movie really is this bad but I hope that I, at least, got better.

Photo © 1998 Columbia Pictures/Mandalay Entertainment
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 word processor. 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, 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 seminar, 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 know—and what hopefully you will never know—as Wild Things. For all I know, Stephen Peters doesn't even exist. If he does, he definitely shouldn't admit to it.

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 to which a movie, much like an individual, should never feel entitled.

Wild Things, like the recent, uneven, but easily superior Palmetto, is a palm-treed, pink-and-aqua, Florida neo-noir. In a community called Blue Bay—a "town" that's really just a country club writ large—high 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 almost anyone who will listen that he forced himself upon her after she washed his car. (Don't ask.) Her claim seems unlikely. If anything, a far more feasible scenario would have had her raping him. Even so, we realize 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 this 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 of the generically requisite trailer-park. By delicious Hollywood logic, the village of single- and double-wides virtually borders a million-dollar-real-estate community. And by the cruder logic of a sleazy plot, Suzie attests that she also was raped by Sam Lombardo.

In these early chapters, the film falls short of a tag like "compelling" but it at least sets the stage for a knotty plot of threats and counterthreats. We prepare to disentangle 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 knee-high 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 the lead actors reveal so much of themselves (heh-hem) that McNaughton seems to be counting on this to keep his audience entertained.

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 suspicious of betrayal forfeit her misgivings long enough for a steamy lovefest in an open-air pool—and with the very person she suspects of turning her in? How could a subsequent three-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 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 looks sultry by MTV standards, the whole enterprise sinks inside its own arbitrary 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 a random 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 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 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 Southern-fried 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 in which Matt Dillon tries to play steel-jawed conviction. It's always fun to watch the poor guy flail around in any movie where he lacks Gus Van Sant's assistance.

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 gators—Wild Things is all dead meat. Grade: D–

Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actor (Murray, tie; also cited for Rushmore)

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