Thursday, 30 June 2011
Starring: Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, Ray Liotta
By Alan Bacchus
There’s not much to celebrate from ‘80s cinema. I posted an article about this topic a few years back (HERE), and I actually forgot to put Jonathan Demme on this list. Something Wild, new to Criterion Collection deification, stands up as one of the best films of the decade. It sits in a pile of unquantifiable quirky films of the ‘80s, which are distinct to the decade and represent the attempt of filmmakers to subvert the strong capitalist conservative values of that time. We could also include Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and a handful of Jim Jarmusch films (Down By Law, Stranger in Paradise, Mystery Train) in this bucket.
I can distinctly remember my reaction watching this film for the first time years ago, specifically the remarkable midpoint tonal switch from fun, fluffy romantic road movie to a dark and violent kidnapping and revenge tale. The moment occurs in a convenience store, where Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels), a meek suburban schmuck who, on the second day of his rambunctious, spur of the moment road trip with his flighty free spirit girlfriend Lulu, is caught in an armed robbery heist with a dangerous criminal. The scene is punctuated by a raucous punk song and features Ray Liotta losing his cool and throwing around and pistol whipping store patrons, as well as a mighty cool freeze frame in the middle of the action for good measure. It’s a Martin Scorsese-type scene all the way, and we can’t help but think Marty saw this and decided to cast Liotta in Goodfellas.
The scene is also famous for influencing Paul Thomas Andersons' famous midpoint tonal shift in Boogie Nights, when (spoiler alert) William H. Macy’s character, after witnessing his wife boning another dude for the umpteenth time, decides to blow his own head off in the middle of a party. As in Something Wild, this scene represented a distinct turn to the dark side for Anderson.
Liotta is indeed a revelation in this film, a pocket full of rage so dangerous and threatening we can feel it through the screen in our seats. Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith also give fabulous performances. It's one of Griffith’s signature roles, the high-pitch voiced cock-tease character she would hone over the next ten years or so. For Daniels, his “awe shucks” personality represents the conservativeness of Americana in the decade, which makes Lulu’s seduction and corruption as the skewer into the social and political values of the period so delightful.
Demme was a master of using real locations and real personalities from these settings to create authenticity and realism. Watch the scene in the second half, when Charlie, who, while stalking the reunited lovers Lulu and Ray, enters a convenience store to buy a disguise. It’s a comical scene with Charlie donning a garish t-shirt and ludicrously tacky sunglasses. But watch his interaction with the other actors, who seem to exist in the space instead of being ‘placed’ there for the purposes of the film. Same with the end credits when Lulu and Charlie walk away along the sidewalk. The camera pans to a street vendor singing a reggae ditty. Demme has no reason to point his camera at her other than the fact that it feels right for the scene. I doubt this was in the script or even the shot list at the beginning of the day. But it’s the mark of a great filmmaker running on all cylinders and unable to make a mistake.
Something Wild is a classic from a decade with very little classics.
Something Wild is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.