Wild Things
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 called—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 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 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.

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 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 most anyone who will listen that he forced himself upon her after she washed his car. (Don't ask.)

As unlikely as her claim seems—a far more feasible scenario would have had her raping him—we 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 of—again meeting Hollywood criteria—the 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, right?

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 conviction—it's always punchy to watch the poor guy flail around in anything without Gus Van Sant's help.

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. D–

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

Permalink Home 1998 ABC Blog E-Mail