By Chaz Lipp
An exploration of embracing your inner rebel, Something Wild stands as director Jonathan Demme’s very best film. That’s saying something considering he won an Oscar for 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs and helmed the painfully truthful Rachel Getting Married in 2008. But the stars aligned for his wonderfully idiosyncratic 1986 comedy, written by E. Max Frye, with everyone—including stars Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith—at the top of their game. The Criterion Collection has chosen to include this gem in their roster of acclaimed films, offering what is easily the finest home video presentation of Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography. While not heavy on supplemental features, the interviews with Demme and Frye offer welcome background about the creation of the film.
After skipping out on a lunch check, upstanding businessman Charlie Driggs (Daniels) is accosted by a woman he assumes works at the restaurant he just stiffed. The woman, who identifies herself as Lulu (Griffth), isn’t a waitress. She simply spotted the closet bad boy in Charlie. Despite the suit and tie, deep down he’s a milder version of the kind of guy she likes to spend time with. Before long, the unlikely couple are getting drunk and having sex in a cheap motel room. Charlie tells Lulu he’s married with a family, yet something in him compels him to continue this affair with her.
Turns out neither Charlie nor Lulu on the level. They’re each projecting a slightly fictionalized fantasy of themselves to each other. Before long, Charlie is tagging along to Lulu’s high school reunion and that’s when Something Wild lives up to its title. Blowing into the picture with the subtlety of a hurricane, Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta) shows up at the reunion. Two things are made immediately clear: firstly, Ray is fresh out of prison, secondly, Ray still considers his ex, Audrey (Lulu’s real name, it turns out), his girlfriend. The final act transforms the film into something extremely different than the story we thought we were watching. Charlie soon realizes he’s in over his head, his feigned carefree attitude giving way to fear when it becomes obvious Ray is not a very nice guy.
Extreme tonal changes like this are difficult to pull off, but Demme handles it with astonishing deftness. It’s not like the comic aspects completely exit the film as it veers suddenly towards thriller territory. Daniels works wonders with the role of Charlie, the guy who initially believes risky financial investments to be the pinnacle of “sticking it to the man.” Griffith skillfully shows us that Lulu/Audrey is more or less toying with Charlie at first, but her affection for him turns out to be genuine. When Ray starts getting out of control (which doesn’t take long) and Audrey snaps back to reality, we feel it through Griffith’s performance. This was Liotta’s first significant film role and he makes the most of limited screen time, turning in a star-making performance that earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Beyond the main performances, Something Wild benefits from a number of a small touches. Cameos by iconic director John Waters (as a slimy used car salesman) and the late Charles Napier (as a very angry line cook) are only a couple examples of details that make the film so memorable. Initially, we share in the free-spirited abandon of Charlie and Lulu as they, along with a carful of good-natured hitchhikers, belt out an acoustic guitar-driven sing-along of The Troggs’ classic “Wild Thing.” But when the consequences of living life without responsibility eventually come to a head, Charlie realizes with a start that it might be too late.
As I already mentioned, the 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer is the best the film has looked. For fans of the film, years of suffering with poor quality, dingy looking transfers will finally become a memory we can forget. Even on DVD, this wasn’t ever an especially good looking movie. This high definition transfer was supervised by cinematographer Fujimoto and approved by Demme. I believe it. The visual presentation is simply a revelation, with its sharpest-ever picture revealing a level of detail previously unseen since it was screening theatrically on 35mm film. The audio is offered as a very sturdy DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix that allows for the dialogue, music, and effects to be heard more cleanly than ever. Criterion has done a commendable job here.
The supplements, though limited, are very valuable. We get a half-hour interview with Jonathan Demme and a ten-minute interview with screenwriter E. Max Frye. They speak about the origins of the project, with Demme of course focusing more on the actual production. Something Wild is an essential addition to The Criterion Collection and one of the great, lesser-known films of its era.