Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For February, we’re celebrating acclaimed genre-bender Jonathan Demme. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Jonathan Demme‘s most acclaimed works are often his darkest: the grim serial killer nihilism of Silence of the Lambs, the tearjerking tragedies of Philadelphia and Beloved. But it’s important to remember the late director for his moments of mirth, his celebration of music and Americana and the little ways we allow ourselves to break out from the pack. 1986’s Something Wild is more of a curio in Demme’s back catalog, a manic pixie road romance that flits between goofy renditions of “Wild Thing” and blood-soaked confrontations in a suburban bathroom. It flirts with serious issues of late-capitalist malaise, but is first and foremost here to show you a good time.
The opening minutes of Something Wild feel like something out of a Dear Penthouse letter: I never thought it’d happen to me, but…. It starts with gormless, straight-laced Manhattan finance guy Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels, paradoxically at his most Minnesotan) trying to skip out on a check at a diner, only to be intercepted a mysterious, enticing woman named Lulu (an entrancing Melanie Griffith). In his transgression, she sees the glimmer of a fellow ‘wild thing’ trying to escape, someone flaunting social norms because he just needs to feel alive. Lulu, with her European bob (reminiscent of Louise Brooks’ Lulu in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, perhaps deliberately) and array of African jewelry, steals him away from his day job on a sojourn to a New Jersey motel, enticing him to skip work and come with her on a long weekend of sex and discovery.
Critic Nathan Rabin is well known for his identification of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’, the effervescent, mercurial siren whose quirky affectations and devil-may-care personality are chiefly employed to drive the male protagonist’s emotional journey. Griffith’s Lulu most certainly qualifies for the first part, at least; she’s a bundle of quirks, but engaging ones, and as the film dives deeper into her past, we see just how tragic the mask of “Lulu” truly is. Sure, put reductively, Lulu is a vehicle for the humdrum Charlie to come out of his Wall Street shell and learn to take a risk or two. But as Something Wild bobs and weaves down its long country roads, Demme (working from E. Max Frye‘s twisty, dryly funny script) presents both of them as lost souls who may be far more than we see on the surface.
Fans of Stop Making Sense and his other musical works will recognize Demme’s deep affection for the cinematic energy of music, and Something Wild thrums with a then-hot soundtrack featuring David Byrne, UB40, The Feelies, and a host of reggae beats. “Wild Thing” becomes a recurring motif, sung by Lulu and Charlie by themselves, guitar-wielding hitchhikers, and more. It even closes out the credits with a head-bopping rendition by Sister Carol against a salmon-red brick wall, an anthem to the garishly celebratory colors of rebellion.
Demme’s film (aided by Tak Fujimoto‘s typically gorgeous cinematography) is similarly saturated, in everything from the pastel green of Lulu’s car to the cornflower-blue thrift store suit Lulu dresses Charlie in before sneaking him into their high school reunion. Something Wild pops with this kind of lushness; sometimes, to break out of your shell, you just have to look the part. It doesn’t hurt, too, that Daniels and Griffith have crackerjack chemistry, the two young actors at the peak of their respective skills: Daniels as the hapless, perpetually-overwhelmed straight man, Griffith the breathy ingenue with glimmers of sadness just beneath the surface.
But just as Charlie is breaking away from the dullness of his Type-A finance bro lifestyle (and later, we learn, a broken marriage), Lulu is engaged in her own form of escape. As Charlie, and the audience, learns when they stop by her hometown, Lulu is actually Audrey, a bottle-blonde nice girl who escaped her small-town roots. She’s got an abusive husband (Ray Liotta, in an intense, blood-red debut) fresh out of prison, and when she and Charlie run into him at her high school reunion, Something Wild turns into something of a three-person domestic drama. Demme expertly wobbles the tone between screwball comedy and crime thriller in the film’s latter half, as Ray comes along to act as the steely-eyed fly in the ointment.
Something Wild pops with this kind of lushness; sometimes, to break out of your shell, you just have to look the part.
It’s here that Something Wild barrels towards inevitable tragedy, as Charlie must be broken down and reinvent himself to rescue Audrey from Ray’s violent possessiveness. Gone is the pressed-and-starched business suit, in favor of a backwards cap, pink Hawaiian shirt, and goofy shorts (along with Lulu’s bright-blue shades, adorned with little astronauts on the frames). He’s hardly a knight in shining armor, but he’s thrown away the buttoned-down expectations of ’80s masculinity to embrace his inner dork. In so doing, he becomes the hero he was meant to be. Charles and Audrey may be unhappy as they are, but Charlie and Lulu? Those selves have meaning.
In anticipation of Something Wild‘s bloody ending, Lulu asks Charlie late in the film, “What are you gonna do now that you’ve seen how the other half lives?” “The other half?” he asks. “The other half of you.” There’s a freedom in his newfound liberation, but there’s fear as well. Can he reconcile the two halves of himself? Can Lulu/Audrey? Is this kind of wild ride sustainable for them in the long term? Demme doesn’t offer easy answers. He’s just content to let the question linger in Charlie’s brains, and subsequently in ours.
Something Wild is a film about reinvention, an escape from the physical violence of assholes like Ray and the financial violence of Charlie’s investment bank. Instead, Demme asks us to look to the margins — to the small American towns replete with quirky billboards and vibrant characters, as well as the music and culture of people of color. His ‘true’ America is in John Waters’ conspiratorial car salesman, or John Sayles’ friendly motorcycle cop, or Sister Carol bobbing her hips to the catchy beat of “Wild Thing.” It’s here that Demme finds his home, and Something Wild finds its rebellious, infectious heart.