Judge Gordon Sullivan once went on a road trip with a mountain lion.
Something Different Something Daring Something Dangerous
I can see it already: people are going to complain about the inclusion of Jonathan Demme's Something Wild (Blu-ray) in the prestigious Criterion Collection. I mean there are no Godard films past 1972, only one Marty Scorsese flick, and we could all use a decent Region 1 release of Orson Welles' The Chimes at Midnight. In fact, Something Wild feels like a one night stand in a collection that all about long-term relations. At least that's how it appears at first blush. On closer inspection, the film is more like a summer affair embarked on between graduating college and the demands of being a grown up. That fleeting kind of connection that feels almost insignificant at the time, but blossoms into importance as the years go by. Something Wild is that relationship for director Jonathan Demme. It's the real moment where the director who earned his stripes making exploitation fare for Roger Corman grew into the guy who gave us The Silence of the Lambs and Rachel Getting Married. Bless the Criterion Collection for recognizing this pivotal moment in an important director's career and preserving it in a lovely (though admittedly slight) Blu-ray edition for fans and skeptics alike.
Facts of the Case
Something Wild is a road movie that starts, innocently enough, when high-powered accounting executive Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels, Speed) leaves a diner without paying his check. This minor act of rebellion catches the eye of Lulu (Melanie Griffith, Cecil B. Demented), a free spirit who proceeds to kidnap Charlie. The pair embark on a journey that will test the limits of Charlie's apparent conventionality, Lulu's freedom, and their burgeoning relationship. And all that happens before the pair encounter Lulu's hoodlum husband, Ray (Ray Liotta, Goodfellas).
During an interview included as a special feature on this set, director Jonathan Demme says he was attracted to the script for Something Wild because in reading it he never knew quite what was going to happen. After watching the film, it's obvious why he couldn't figure out what was going to happen: Something Wild has a five-act structure where each act is fairly self-contained, but differs in tone and focus from the moments around it. This is then grafted onto a road movie structure that finds our heroes travelling from Manhattan's busy streets to the wilds of Pennsylvania and Virginia. Along the way the pair meet (in addition to the crazy Ray) examples of the diversity of America's citizens, and in some ways Charlie takes the classic hero's journey into the belly of the beast before discovering himself at the end.
What impresses today is Jonathan Demme's command of this diverse material. We've got numerous scenes of madcap comedy, some vulnerable scenes of sexuality, and a bit of violence thrown in as well. Just as importantly, all those different people to portray as real human beings rather than stereotypes. Amazingly, Jonathan Demme pulls it off. Whether it was his years in the Roger Corman exploitation trenches, or his documentary work with notorious iconoclasts The Talking Heads, Demme takes a concept and a script that could have been a disastrous mish-mash and crafts a unified film from the pieces. No matter where he picked up his training, Demme has an eye for the deft little touches that make a picture. John Cale and Laurie Anderson (notorious NYC musical artists) co-created the soundtrack; Jonathan Demme and David Byrne's mothers appear in a small scene; John Waters is cast as a used car salesman. All of these tiny details combine to make Something Wild a memorable picture.
Demme's deftness extends to his casting choices as well. Fresh off the success of Brian De Palma's Body Double, Melanie Griffith is both alluring and dangerous. One moment she appears to be seducing Charlie (and by extension, the audience), and in the next trying to scare him. She's surprisingly effective at both. As the audience surrogate, the apparently square Charlie is played to comedic perfection by Jeff Daniels. As someone who grew up knowing him only from his stint in Dumb and Dumber, it was a revelation to see him playing smart comedy. Speaking of revelations, I'm sure Ray Liotta must have looked like the hottest thing on the block when he made his first starring role here. He's menacing, edgy, and just smart enough to be dangerous and his presence improves the film.
Criterion brings Something Wild to Blu-ray with a fantastic AVC-encoded transfer. Aside from a little print damage (most noticeable early on in the film), the film looks amazing. Colors are vivid, with accurate skin tones, while detail and black levels are strong throughout. The film's natural grain is well reproduced, and no serious digital artefacts mar the film's look. I've heard mixed reviews of this DTS-HD 2.0 stereo track, but to my ears it sounds good but not great. The music comes through with impressive fidelity, but the dialogue is a little more flat. However, the limitations are almost certainly due to the recording technology, not this track.
Extras include two video interviews, totaling 42 minutes or so. The first is a 33-minute interview with Demme that allows him to lead us through the making of Something Wild, including its place in his overall body of work. The second is a 9-minute interview with screenwriter E. Max Frye, and he discusses the film's inspiration and its sometimes rocky journey from script to screen. We also get the film's theatrical trailer, and the usual Criterion booklet includes an interesting essay from David Thompson.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's no denying this is a rather slight entry in the Criterion Collection. Something Wild is good, but not quite a classic, and the few extras don't give special feature hounds anything to howl over. I'd like to think it's Criterion's way of sneaking John Waters into the collection.
The film itself is certainly not going to be to everyone's tastes. From a genre perspective it's not very satisfying, and it's probably too funny for a violent movie and too violent for a funny movie.
Something Wild is exactly what its title says: a film that won't be tamed to typical notions of genre or character. It's about what it means to be a free spirit in the sometimes oppressive Land of the Free. No, it's not a total classic, but it is an interesting piece of cinematic history, highlighting the maturation of an important director. Fans might complain about the lack of extras, but Criterion's excellent audiovisual presentation should win over most haters.
Like Lula, Something Wild is free to go.
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