Wild Things

Twistin'..twistin'..twistin' the night away. Extremely convoluted, quite exploitative, mildly enjoyable in a trashy way.

Released in 1998, certified UK-18. Reviewed on 25 Aug 2003 by Scott Morris
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It's all The Usual Suspects' fault. While it can't claim to be the first film with a twist ending it's one that executed it to perfection, and unless you had very inconsiderate friends you wouldn't see it coming. Crucially it made some sort of sense and didn't violate the film's logic, so you could watch the movie through again and not feel that it was rendered pointless by the ending. It worked so well that people are talking about it to this day, not least by third rate critics padding out reviews of barely related films. Ahem.

Hollywood loves a formula, as we've noted before. It seems that the idea of telling a straight story has fallen so out of fashion that scriptwriters are desperately tacking twists onto rom-coms and nature documentaries, and thrillers and mysteries that could perhaps legitimately have a twist seem desperate to pack as many as possible into their run time. Witness the shocking Basic, a film revelling in its own nonsensical shallowness trying for the illusion of depth.

Somewhere between the extremes lies Wild Things. Numerically it's as twisty as Basic but this has the advantage of most of them making some kind of sense, albeit with a few convenient coincidences and good fortune. I must fight against two handicaps in this review as I'm sick of twists by this point; jaded, familiarity long since having bred contempt. When you're now expecting some sort of twist surely it ceases to be a twist? Scriptwriters are being hoist by their own petard. The second irrational hatred I must struggle with comes in the form of Denise Richards.

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Actually come to think of it, it's a perfectly rational hatred. She's terrible. As if it wasn't enough to stink up an otherwise superb slice of Verhoeven madness in Starship Troopers she also goes and ruins a Bond outing by expecting anyone on the face of the earth to take her big empty head seriously as a nuclear scientist. While I understand there's some sort of 'pretty but talentless' lottery that goes on in Hollywood every year, there's no good reason to continue to cast this waste of otherwise perfectly good blood cells in anything now. Her continued employment, and indeed existence is a thorn in my very soul. Strangely director John McNaughton may share some of the sentiment, when asked why he cast Richards in this film he merely replied, "That's how Hugh Heffner got rich".

You'll have noticed that I'm not really talking about the film. This is entirely it's own fault. As is usual with this kind of thing we wouldn't want to give away the ending, but as Roger Ebert rightly noted the film starts ending about 45 minutes into it's 100 minute span. Lets try and provide some basics. Incidentally, I hope you like George S. Clinton's main theme, because you'll be hearing rather a lot of it. The choral version is lovely, but the theme itself is second only to They Live's and low-rent porn's in its pervasiveness. Strangely, Wild Things goes on to find a lot more in common with low-rent porn.

Set in an affluent town in Southern Florida near the everglades, Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) is a well respected guidance teacher at the local high school. We're introduced to him kicking off a presentation on sex crimes, introducing police officer Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) only to have trailer trash student Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell) shout insults in their general direction and storms out serving as a clumsy signpost that these characters have history.

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Less vocal is Kelly Van Ryan (That Richards Woman), of the Florida Van Ryans. In a wealthy town, the Van Ryans are the wealthiest, and hence most influential. Money talks in Florida, and the Van Ryans are not to be trifled with. Sam declines this culinary advice when he repels the amorous advances of Kelly. This is probably because she looks like a half-drowned rat at the time, after washing his car in a manner that can only be explained by carelessness, youthful high spirits or possibly Parkinson's disease. She's seen running up the street looking bedraggled and upset.

She cries rape. Now, while we don't believe her, the film having established both her and mother as scheming, duplicitous wenches, Officers Duquette and his partner Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega, largely reduced to a sounding board for Duquette's theories) and the district attorney accept her story. Given a total lack of evidence they don't arrest Sam, but word spreads quickly round the small community. Sam's name is mud, and he finds himself he target of physical assaults.

In situations like this, you need a good lawyer. Even if Sam could afford the best thanks to the Van Ryan's influence, they wouldn't take the case. In situations like this, you need any lawyer. Sam hires Bill Murray. This is a wise decision. If I had to hire a lawyer, I'd hire Bill Murray. If I needed a cancer specialist, I'd hire Bill Murray. Come to think of it, if I was in a position to hire anybody for any position I'd hire Bill Murray. Bill Murray is perhaps the closest thing on this earth to a living God, with the possible exception of Riki Takeuchi. And wouldn't you know it, the twenty odd minutes featuring God are the best minutes of the film by far.

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He plays Kenneth Bowden, specialising in personal injury claims, as his photographic hall of clients in neck braces attests. So fashionable is it that even he wears one, although he removes it having established Sam isn't an investigator. As ever, Murray owns the screen. The man can make even uninspired material funny although he's given some pretty decent stuff to work with. He takes the case. Things look like they may be turning bleak for Sam after Suzie comes forward to claim that Sam also raped her, some years ago. He's arrested and the case goes to trial. With some skilled probing God uncovers cracks in Suzie's story and she breaks under questioning, blurting out that Kelly put her up to it for revenge on Sam for not boffing her and also for boffing her mother.

The case collapses, Sam walks free. He sues the Van Ryans, netting a cool eight million plus dollars in an out-of-court settlement. Bill Murray leaves us, his job complete, vanishing like a shadow into the darkness. He leaves us with Sam, Suzie, Kelly and an irritated cop in the shape of Ray Duquette. He reckons something's fishy and don't you know he's right. Exactly what transpires I'll largely leave as an exercise for the interested reader but expect more boffing and plot twists out the yazoo and you're in the right ball park.

The heavily featured sex scenes are utterly, utterly unnecessary to the plot. Eight million odd dollars is quite enough motivation, thank you. The physical relationships between Kelly, Sam and Suzie aren't needed and seem cynically thrown in as a sop to the guys writing the features box on the DVD case.

  • Widescreen
  • Dolby Digital 5.1
  • Interactive menus
  • Girls kissing
  • Denise Richards' baps
and so forth. If it wasnt't for the presence of That Richards Woman they might have had a shot at being erotic too.

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Ultimately it makes the same mistake made by many of these (as it turns out to be) crime capers, that being it's full of criminals. It doesn't matter if they're robbing from arguably more 'evil' people, they're still big dirty thieves which doesn't exactly engender sympathy. As none of them look to be the Robin Hood type the only reason to root for any of them to get away with it rests on the individual characters and the actors. A cursory glance at the cast list should enough to realise that this is not the crew to pull this off. I've nothing in particular against Dillon, Campbell or Mr. Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but none of them have the charisma to make their characters really likeable, as they would have to were this to be truly successful.

It's hard to blame the actors though. The problem resides in the script and the initial ideas. The characters and their dialogue aren't terrible, although it's uninspired. However, as the story keeps twisting their natures about every ten minutes there isn't a lot of screen time for them to develop into fully rounded characters. We get two versions of all of the leads over the course of the film, and there just aren't enough minutes to devote to (4 * 2 =) 8 main characters and have them appear to be anything other than shallow and underwritten. The trade off seems to have been to sacrifice character depth for story depth, but that's the start of a Catch-22. If I don't care about the characters, I can't care about the story, I'm afraid.

In a shocking, shocking twist of fate, of the leads it's Denise Richards that come out of it the best. I'm as brimful of disbelief as you, believe me. Her character changes the least, by some margin, so she has the most time to establish herself in her role and she fulfils it reasonably well. The courtroom scene in particular is either a stroke of genius or irony, as she has to act like a bad actor. This is either a very brave thing for her to do, or if I slip my cynical guttersnipe hat on it's a case of her displaying her typical lack of talent but it actually being accommodated by the script for once.

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Recast this with slightly more charismatic actors and tighten up the dialogue here and there, perhaps have a little foreshadowing of some of the twists and this would be a pretty good piece of cinema. As it stands it's not an unbearable little movie, but it's frustrating to see potential that isn't fully realised. The sheer volume of twists grows ridiculous towards the end, so much so that it's still trying desperately to explain itself as the credits roll. McNaughton, who will probably be best remembered for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to his dying days seems unsure whether he wants us to take this as a serious work or a tongue-in-cheek soap opera parody. It thinks its strong suit is it's sex scenes, but with Richards in the mix it isn't even its high card. She has all the components of an attractive lass but seeing as the assembly is, well, Denise Richards it's enough to cool my ardour, at least.

So I can only judge this as a tongue in cheek thriller with delusions of adequacy. In contrast with the rest of our editorial staff I don't find this unbearable to watch, just unsatisfying. I believe it's trying too hard to be all things to all people; funny, titillating, thrilling, sardonic, tense, dramatic, action-packed, and pornographic. It can't succeed on all those counts, and it's struggling to fulfil any, I'm afraid.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 2/5 TippyMarks.

John McNaughton
Cast list:
Matt Dillon (Sam Lombardo)
Kevin Bacon (Sgt. Ray Duquette)
Neve Campbell (Suzie Toller)
Denise Richards (Kelly Van Ryan)
Daphne Rubin-Vega (Det. Gloria Perez)
Bill Murray (Kenneth Bowden)