Why I Love… #149: Wild Things

Year: 1998

Director: John McNaughton

Stars: Denise Richards, Kevin Bacon, Matt Dillon

It’d be easy to besmirch the latter day career of Denise Richards, whose reality TV persona often feels like a warped mirror image of the kinds of roles she was nabbing in her late ’90s heyday. But while she’s never been the greatest actor in Hollywood, some of those roles suited her to a T. For a short while, if you wanted a haughty-but-hot Republican bitch, nobody did it like Denise Richards.

While the zenith of these is her turn as beauty queen wannabe Becky Leeman in Michael Patrick Jann’s under-appreciated mockumentary gem Drop Dead Gorgeous, her work as entitled teen Kelly Van Ryan  in Wild Things serves as quite the second string. Stepping out of a swimming pool in a see-through swimsuit and flicking her hair, Richards – wittingly or not, but one assumes the former – became the poster babe for horny young websites like Mr. Skin as The Internet swept the globe in a fervent cacophony of dial-up screams. A wet hot summer all of it’s own, it was clear from the outset that Wild Things was continuing the ’90s insatiable lust for, well… lust.

The erotic thriller boom of that decade – a phenomenon now catered for by prestige TV streamers – actually began the decade before with Adrian Lyne’s soft-core thrillers Fatal Attraction and 9 1/2 Weeks, but it was Paul Verhoeven who powered it’s ascendance with 1992’s Basic Instinct. For the rest of the decade viewers were peddled increasingly trite and tired courtroom dramas and office scandals, all serving as a scant facade for a look at some celebrity skin. There are devotees of this movement who howl at the lacklustre dialogue and chemistry, and who champion some of the baffling sex scenes offered up for our leering gaze. And yes, on occasion it can prove fun to dive into this seedy, often shambolic sub-genre and reel in the confusion of what the creatives were thinking.

Wild Things sits apart from much of the erotic thriller genre, however, chiefly thanks to how self-aware it is. Appearing in 1998, it was toward the tail-end of the cycle. Shows like The SopranosOz and Six Feet Under were just around the corner, ready to package adult material for the comfort and sophistication of highbrow TV viewers, and the erotic thriller had for a long time become something of a joke in the culture, viewed as dimly as the summer camp slashers of the previous decade. John McNaughton’s flick was dismissed as more of the same in some quarters. But look closer and you’ll find a wry smile and a ripe, pulpy script (kudos Stephen Peters), one that invites us to participate and enjoy the myriad twists and turns it has in store.

Opening with George Clinton’s low-down, dirty (and impeccable) score, helicopter shots cruise the everglades, redolent of treacherous waters and – between the thick clusters of reeds – myriad winding paths for high school guidance counsellor Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) to navigate aboard his hovercraft. Lombardo becomes embroiled in a sex scandal when he’s accused of rape by Richards’ Kelly Van Ryan. It might’ve been an open and shut empty claim if fellow-student Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell) hadn’t followed suit. Suzie is a backwater outcast, far-flung from the privileged upbringing Kelly has enjoyed. The two appear to be mortal enemies, united only in their claims against the incredulous teacher. Lombardo employs circumspect lawyer Ken Bowden (Bill Murray) to defend him. Murray’s Bowden – a scene-stealing proto-Saul Goodman – unravels a thorny conspiracy between the two teens and Lombardo’s name is cleared. But this is only the beginning. Snooping detective Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) smells a rat and, as he starts tailing the trio – whom he believes orchestrated the entire fiasco, Lombardo included – bodies start piling up…

Wild Things 1998

Bill Murray’s smooth-talking lawyer is among the first signposts that Wild Things isn’t your cookie-cutter erotic thriller. With his sham neck brace and irreverent wisecracks, he opens up an offshoot of wry humour that the film then follows with it’s subsequent layering of ‘shocking’ twists, each more incredulous than the last. The reveal that Sam, Kelly and Suzie indeed have been working together is accompanied with the pop of a champagne cork, itself a phallic prefiguring of the sleazy three-way scene that it tees off. Clinton’s aforementioned score also accentuates this tone of post-modern irony; the audio equivalent of a raised eyebrow over every new credibility-busting development.

The prevailing mood of the piece turns increasingly comic as it pushes into its second half. In direct contrast to this, here Daphne Rubin-Vega moves to the fore as Duquette’s suspicious partner Det. Gloria Perez, picking up the breadcrumb trails of a convoluted scam too late to have any material impact on it. She’s effectively left standing in the tall reeds herself, turning about in all directions like a Musical Chairs player who wonders how long ago the music stopped. She’s the sole ‘straight man’ of the piece and Rubin-Vega plays it beautifully – and rightly – as though she’s in a different movie altogether.

For their parts, the two male leads lay it on wonderfully thick. Dillon appears to be in his element, dialled into exactly the level McNaughton’s movie is playing at. His Sam Lombardo exhibits a fragile male ego, scoffs like a former jock and, when things are going his way, preens like the cat who got the cream. Bacon, meanwhile, plays Duquette as though he’s wading through the mires of a ’40s noir mystery; the renegade cop! He leans into the stereotype. The largess in both of them compliments an overarching theme of performance that becomes clearer as things go on.

WILD

Prefiguring the age of the post-credits scene by at least a decade, much of Wild Things hinges on a succession of reveals and extended scenes that appear once the main part of the movie is ‘over’, popping up throughout the end crawl to deliberately troll those trying to creep from the cinema. “Not yet”, it says, “How about this?”. And, unlike nowadays – where post-credits scenes are used primarily for irksome fan service, skits or pointless cameos – the scattering of further twists found here are not only beneficial, but arguably essential, ironing out several of the movie’s seeming plot holes. Not only did Wild Things preempt this lamentable craze; it did it better than anyone since.

Nobody’s going to confuse Wild Things for high art. In spite of it’s spiralling reveals, its about as substantial as an airport paperback (in fact, it’s very like an airport paperback). But this very vacuity is part of it’s  lasting appeal. It brazenly acknowledges that it belongs in a trifling genre about the perils of surface level thrills, deploying guilty pleasure set pieces in motel rooms and swimming pools. It both sends up it’s brethren and revels in the pleasures of similar excess (an extended cut mainly reveals a little more of Richards’ bod). Though generally treated with little more than a shrug on release, Wild Things took a leaf out of the films that birthed it and spawned it’s own direct-to-DVD sequels, though none of these had the wherewithal or reflexivity of McNaughton’s picture.

It remains, perhaps rightly, a footnote in American cinema of the ’90s. But, like an indulgent holiday, it comes back to mind with scattershot unpredictability. I’ll suddenly recall the sticky humidity of it, like the memory of a hot sunset, or the sickly alcoholic hue of a veranda cocktail. That’s Wild Things to me; an exotic, sexy and silly vacation.

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