Futures & Pasts: Wild Things
In Pierre Bayard’s 1998 Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?: The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery, a closer-than-close reading of Agatha Christie’s 1926 The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, psychoanalyst and literature professor Bayard expends considerable space on the subject of the book’s narrative ellipses, its lies by omission. These are the spaces in which Christie’s narrator, Dr. James Sheppard, who is eventually unmasked as the book’s murderer, can conceal his guilt. They are also, for Bayard, indicators of a far larger world which exists beyond the parsimonious few details that Christie, by way of Sheppard and investigator Hercule Poirot, have chosen to share with the reader.
What a blast Bayard could have with John McNaughton’s Wild Things, a film that flaunts its narrative obstructions, is defined by withholding. These are the spaces in which McNaughton conceals his crime. As the movie parcels out fragmentary and downright deceitful information to the audience, its true narrative—that is, the information that would allow us to understand what exactly is going on and who is behind it—remains safely hidden in its ellipses. Rather than offering resolution, the final “What’s in the Box?” revelations of what was concealed in these blind spots only reinforce our sense of how little we know of the whole story. Released in early spring of 1998, a full year before The Sixth Sense ignited a rage for twist endings, the final daisy chain of gotchas in Wild Things raised the narrative rug-pull to a level of overkill that approached the sublime. But more on that anon.
A 35mm print of Wild Things will be screening at the IFC Center this Friday and Saturday, as part of the 12-film “Fatal Attractions: Erotic Thrillers of the ’80s and ’90s” midnight series. The selections hearken back to a pre-Internet moment when the average American consumer would’ve had to pass through the saloon-style double-doors of their video store’s Adult room in order to partake of hardcore gratification. A good many consumers dissuaded by this still sought illicit pleasures, and this created a demand fulfilled by a category of socially acceptable quasi-smut, NC-17 or Hard R-rated films that would be filed in sections with names like “Spicy” or “After Dark.” Their commercial purpose was the sale of peekaboo titillation, but at their best they allowed for real cinematic sensuality and frank examinations of the intermingled roles of lust, power, and money as motivating forces in society—all of which largely disappeared from mainstream American movies when sex was ghettoized into porn, readily available via broadband without risk of judgment by teenaged clerks. Yes, the erotic thriller section was a lawless, liminal zone in which films like Sliver, Body Heat, and Poison Ivy—all part of IFC’s program—could be found in the odd company of Ryu Murakami’s Tokyo Decadence, Ken Russell’s Whore, or even Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses.
In the erotic thriller, very often sexual capital and social aspiration were as complexly entwined as those well-toned bodies on the video box art, enjoying simultaneous arched-back orgasms on artfully rumpled satin sheets. Wild Things lays out its scenario in affluent Blue Bay, Florida—actually the Miami neighborhood of Coconut Grove standing in. Its principal characters are representative of the city’s have-nots and haves. The players’ actual motives, as well as the network of secret treaties that bind them together, will come into view only gradually, like the antediluvian visage of the alligator that emerges from the water of the Everglades with the opening title.
Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) is the guidance counselor at Blue Bay’s high school. A onetime Teacher of the Year, he’s also the resident Romeo at the local country club where he’s been shopping for a moneyed wife. One of Sam’s students, Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards), has developed a smothering crush on him. Sam’s seen to deflect her flirtations, but then one day Kelly accuses her teacher of raping her after she’d hosed down his Jeep for a charity carwash. Because Kelly is from an influential family of local land barons, and because her mother (Whore’s own Theresa Russell) is one of Sam’s spurned ex-conquests, the full force of the Van Ryans, with the weight of a ton of money behind it, is brought down on him. (The original script by Stephen Peters added in some backstory about crooked real-estate development and generations-old grudges, lost in the shooting.) Detective Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) is put on the case, and appears to have locked it up once Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell), a goth teen who lives unsupervised in a trailer on the outskirts of town, reveals that she had an unmistakably similar experience with Sam. When cross-examined on the stand by Sam’s el cheapo ambulance-chaser lawyer (Bill Murray), however, Suzie unravels and confesses that she was paid to perjure herself by the Van Ryans. This is the first and not the last instance in the film where “coming clean” only reveals another layer of dirt.
We never see what happens between Sam and Kelly after that carwash; we only see her entering his house sopping wet, with intent to seduce, then emerging with a ripped blouse and sprinting off down his street. Such withholding maneuvers occur throughout the film: we’re allowed only an obstructed or fractional view of events, then after the fact presented with paltry evidence and the unreliable testimony of the witnesses to establish what happened. An off-screen “murder” is abstractly rendered with a streak of what might either be blood or red wine. An exchange of gunfire in a guest house is “seen” from outside, in classic “Wild Bill” Wellman style—we can only make out struggling silhouettes and hear a pattern of shots that doesn’t entirely coincide with the police report given afterwards.
While the seemingly guileless Sam’s innocence is by no means certain, he’s the nearest thing to an identification character that we get for the film’s first act—but as Detective Ray later cautions one of Sam’s former students: “People aren’t always what they appear to be. Don’t forget that.” Sam, Kelly, and Suzie were actually working together the whole time, fishing for a big payday from Mrs. Van Ryan, which is what they get after she settles Sam’s defamation suit. In celebration, the three rendezvous for a motel-room threesome, replete with a topless champagne shower and the most famous late Nineties girl-on-girl tongue-tangle this side of 1999’s Cruel Intentions. Later the movie will offer up a slab of full-frontal Bacon in a scene that briefly dangles the possibility of a homo conspiracy between Sam and Ray, though it doesn’t explicitly penetrate any further into the matter. (One ellipsis that’s never satisfactorily explained: what happens to Sam when he’s dumped into a jail cell with a tough-looking, burly dude whose greeting is “So you’re the new chicken-licker?”)
Because of its reliance upon lip-smacking, sweaty-palmed moments like Wild Things’ motel interlude, the erotic thriller wasn’t a genre generally afforded much respect in its heyday. For those of us who grew up with these movies as our smut du jour, however, prurient interest has (partway) given way to serious consideration—I am writing this shortly after the publication of my colleague and contemporary Adam Nayman’s book It Doesn’t Suck, a reclamation of Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 Showgirls, the genre’s mega-production ne plus ultra. Jacques Rivette’s formulation that Verhoeven’s films are about “surviving in a world populated by assholes” might equally be applied to Wild Things. Playing the title role in McNaughton’s 1986 Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Michael Rooker puts the philosophy succinctly: “Look at the world! It’s either you or them.” Suzie would seem to agree. “He had a pretty good line on what cheap fucks people are,” she says when Det. Ray walks in on her reading a dog-eared copy of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan, easily the best pop-culture cameo by this scabrous classic until Jess was seen reading it on a bus out of Star’s Hollow at the end of an episode of Gilmore Girls. Suzie is the only character in the film who betrays any indication of ever having read any book—in fact, her mockingly wielding her knowledge of the Classics over Sam is the last thing he’ll ever hear—though like everyone else in Blue Bay, she lives her life to a soundtrack of truly terrible period alternative pop. (She’s listening to “Not an Addict” by K’s Choice when the detectives walk in, only a minor improvement on the Smash Mouth cover of “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” that Mr. Lombardo is heard blasting in his Wrangler.)
In watching the threesome, the sort of thing that critics often tut-tut as egregious, it’s worth noting just how much characterization McNaughton can pack into a sex scene—the two encounters between Uma Thurman and Robert De Niro in his Mad Dog and Glory (93) are another example. It’s a particularly delicate job in Wild Things because not only are we dealing with a volatile triangular relationship but, as will be revealed by the film’s conclusion, we’re looking at three people who are all presenting false fronts to one another, even while acting on presumably genuine horniness. “They were acting!” as Det. Ray shouts at his partner in a later moment of “revelation,” “They were all acting!” He is full of shit himself, of course—after Sam’s true colors are revealed, the movie will repeat the pattern of alignment and disillusion with Suzie, odd woman out in the ménage à trois, whose victimhood would seem to confirm her innocence, and with Det. Ray, who wears the mantle of authority.
Setting the film in an environment of total deceit gives the performers a fair amount of leeway. If Campbell, with her blazing Manic Panic ombre, drawn-on study-hall henna, Sharpie hieroglyphs on her blue jeans, and chipped-off black nail polish, seems a bit too studied in her tetchy mania when recounting the night that Sam raped her, well, this can be chalked up to the fact that Suzie is in fact performing—and, moreover, giving a performance that’s meant to be partly transparent.
The lead-up to this scene shows McNaughton’s ability to casually sow backstory, establishing time, place, character. Det. Ray and his partner (Daphne Rubin-Vega) arrive to question Suzie, stopping first to talk to Ruby, the proprietress of “Smilin’ Jack’s Fish Camp,” a honky-tonk/ roadside-attraction alligator farm that abuts the trailer park. Ruby is played by Carrie Snodgrass, whose worried blue eyes leave a deep impact in what might have otherwise been a throwaway role. Ruby works with Walter (Marc Macaulay), a dullard whose exact relation to her is as uncertain as Ruby’s is to Suzie. While Walter puts on an impromptu show for the cops, pinning an alligator’s snout closed with his chin, Ruby sends them on their way, tossing a few quips after Det. Ray that speak of a dicey previous history: “You know the way… You won’t shoot her, will ya?”
From the time of the cops’ first pulling up to their leaving the trailer with Suzie, we move from daylight to nacreous dusk to night, and DP Jeffrey L. Kimball, a repeat Tony Scott and John Woo collaborator, handles the transition elegantly. In a few minutes, everything that the film does well is on display: the shrewd use of character actors, the awareness of imminent danger, the sense of nightfall and an emerging double-life, and grudges left to fester in the shadow of power.
Wild Things is a startlingly lush Panavision production, all tropically wet greens and blues. The image it will likely best be remembered for, though, is Richards emerging from the high school swimming pool in slow-motion, wearing a sky blue one-piece with a ludicrously transparent top, all to the baritone of Morphine’s Mark Sandman. The spell is immediately broken by some corny double-entendres about “your breaststroke,” but for a moment you’ve got a piece of ensorcellment that rivals the matching of Patricia Arquette and Lou Reed’s “This Magic Moment” in Lost Highway (1997).
If not precisely Lynchian, there were, in retrospect, some rather startling formal games being played in the erotic thrillers of the period. I will never quite forget the conclusion of another seamy, Florida-set sex-murder movie of 1998, Palmetto, in which the protagonist, played by Woody Harrelson, finishes a screenplay based on his life experiences and then starts writing his dream cast by typing out “Woody Harrelson.” (The only twist more shocking is the film’s opening title: “Directed by Volker Schlöndorff.”)
Wild Things does this one better: After a series of double crosses have winnowed the group of conspirators down to a lone victor, a series of vignettes cut in with the closing credits take us back before the beginning of the movie and carry us all the way past the end, illustrating how exactly the thing was planned and executed. Having built a number of lacunae into their movie, McNaughton and Peters provide us with the missing text at the last possible moment—the crucial puzzle pieces which the other conspirators died for lack of having. I’m not going to re-trace the narrative convolutions, because it’s best to keep these pieces at under 50,000 words, but suffice to say that the film’s final girl is the archetypal Nineties Final Girl, the “Sidney Prescott” of the ever-more-wretched films, Ms. Neve Campbell. Only Suzie, the mastermind, had the entire scheme doped out in advance—everyone else had been briefed on their own role and knew their own lines, but they hadn’t gotten to see the whole script.
When watched again, Wild Things doesn’t become an entirely new movie as Suzie: Portrait of a Serial Killer. At least not in the sense that Christie’s Roger Ackroyd is “explicitly composed for the sake of rereading,” in Bayard’s formulation, or that viewers flocked to The Sixth Sense to make sure that yes, I’ll be damned, nobody but the kid ever does talk to Bruce Willis. Watching the maneuvers of Blue Bay’s conniving actors again with eyes open to what’s actually going on and who’s actually calling the shots, we only learn that they are Method actors who stay inside their roles—at least when the camera’s on them. For example, even with no one watching to benefit from her scene, Suzie seems genuinely flustered after Det. Ray questions her about involvement in a possible conspiracy, though the questioning is all part of her plan coming together.
Not only does Wild Things willfully deprive the viewer of the information necessary to positively ID the real mastermind in advance of the final unmasking, its concluding recap doesn’t really jibe with what we’ve seen in the preceding movie. It’s implausible, for example, that Sam and Suzie could fake Suzie’s death in the short time it takes Kelly to go and collect a tarp from her mother’s Range Rover, and even more implausible that Suzie, whose bleary-drunk POV we’d looked through earlier, could suddenly be so sharp and calculating as we see her in this flashback. The film closes with the other survivor, Murray’s shyster lawyer, handing off the big payday to Suzie in her new Caribbean retreat. How did he get in on the plan? What did he know and when did he know it? No amount of re-viewings will extract this information from the swampy murk of Wild Things. Lucky, then, that the movie is as voluptuous as it is, for this becomes the true measure of its rewatchability.