I once heard Wild Things described as a rite of passage for young horny men. I personally remember sneaking into the theater to see it, lying to the attendant, and quickly flashing my ID so he wouldn’t have time to notice I wasn’t old enough for admittance. I don’t think he really cared. We saw the movie, and for me at least, that initial statement rang true. I was surely titillated by what I saw, even changed perhaps, but I wasn’t a fan of the movie itself. It was dark and depressing with no one to truly root for, but 25 years later, I have a new appreciation for Wild Things and what it was trying to do for cinema.
To hear director John McNaughton discuss his 1998 neo-noir crime drama adds a little something to the film, a way of viewing it for more than just its sex, nudity, and sleaze. For years after its release it was known as trash, R-rated schlock, and a guilty pleasure at best, but many saw past the initial pearl-clutching and dirty feelings, citing the mystery, intrigue, and layered storytelling in what is actually an ambitious and problematic erotic thriller. Not everyone is going to agree, but it’s certainly begging for another look.
The plot seems simple enough at first. Blue Bay is one of those rich towns in Florida and Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) is a guidance counselor at a school that can only be described as, well, wild. He’s taken a few students under his wing, won a couple of teaching awards, and has many of the ladies in the town – including some of the younger girls – lusting after him. We see him try to keep things on the up and up, that is until a Sunday car washing sees Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) leaving Lombardo’s house under suspicious circumstances. Van Ryan informs her mother that the teacher raped her and soon after, Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell), accuses him of the same thing. Lombardo’s life is upended briefly, but a flub in the excellent courtroom scene proves the girls were lying, which leaves him able to countersue and win millions of dollars. It seems like an open and shut case to most, except that Sergeant Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and his partner, Detective Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega) aren’t convinced there wasn’t more at play.
That’s where the story truly kicks off, as everyone involved seems to know more than they’re letting on and the twisted tales begin to unravel for each participant’s true motives. Like any good mystery, however, there’s a murder or two with tons of foreshadowing. Wild Things embraces several themes, but it works best with unraveling characters’ true natures, classism, and even uses mythological elements to seal the deal. It’s a story that could have been ripped from current headlines, but that wants to take its audience on a deep dark ride with all the dirty words and thoughts it can, from sexual assault and incest to classic greed and betrayal, the film’s sex scenes aren’t the only seductive part of the movie’s demented nature.
We don’t talk about sex enough. It’s why a movie like Wild Things has no trouble stirring the pot, thriving off of controversy, and causing others to miss the finer points it was trying to share. Wild Things is more than just its sex scenes, but most remember it for the infamous ménage à trois where Richards goes topless. Her baring all was meticulously negotiated beforehand, down to how much nipple would be seen and all three actors who participated reportedly opted to have margaritas prior to the shoot to make it easier. The lesbian action in the scenes was considered very risqué and it was Campbell’s first time making out with another girl, as she exposed herself in a different sense. Campbell had a no-nudity clause in her contract due to her running gig on Party of Five. This film was a look at her as the bad girl.
Someone else that had a no-nudity clause in their contract, Kevin Bacon – who also acted as a Producer on Wild Things – ended up exposing himself anyway. Viewers who went to this film just hoping to see bare breasts were surprised by “Kevin’s Bacon,” but according to the director, this was an accident that the actor later agreed to leave in. It goes further than that, or it was supposed to, at least. The original script called for Dillon to join Bacon in the shower and make out for an extra twist, but those financing the film felt that men making out was going too far. Lesbians were fine though, apparently. Several things were actually toned down from the original draft, such as the first version of the threesome scene throwing a sex toy into the mix.
One issue with the movie is that the tone is somewhat inconsistent. The cast is doing amazing work here, it might be Richards’ best performance period, but then Bill Murray shows up as Lombardo’s lawyer, Ken Bowden. He’s great in the role, but a couple of his reactions and subtle antics threw me off from the serious crime story. Additionally, the licensed music of the soundtrack is so appropriate for when it was made and is quite enjoyable, but some of George S. Clinton’s (of Mortal Kombat fame) tracks don’t quite seem to fit what just happened in previous scenes, making transitions awkward. McNaughton has said himself that Wild Things becomes, “funnier with age,” to him at least. Kevin Bacon seems to agree with that sentiment, warning first-timer viewers not to take the movie too seriously.
Wild Things expertly uses its Florida setting, showing some of the most rotten people in beautiful and dangerous surroundings, where peeling back the fancy layers of this rich community reveals nothing but corruption. It turns out the crew, much like the characters, should have been worried as well. Many of them fell ill during production due to the heat, a tornado almost destroyed part of the set, and police had to be called when a real dead body washed up in the swamp, but they finished the scene first. Priorities.
As good as Wild Things is, it goes too far and tries to do too much. I don’t mean with the sex, but with its constant consecutive reveals and double-crosses. When the hits start coming, they don’t stop coming, and kind of bury the enjoyment we were finding in the mystery, offering no moments to breathe. At 108 minutes the movie is already a bit long, but it decides to cram so much in at the end and tries to explain everything while hopping back and forth, forcing Carrie Snodgress’ character of Ruby to be a fountain of exposition, running up against the credits, which those have even more scenes to try and help fill in the gaps as well. If anyone thinks that wasn’t enough somehow, there were additional explainers cut from the script. I also watched the unrated version recently, which adds six minutes of footage that is fine, but probably not needed, and only offers one additional sex scene amidst all that talking.
Wild Things might have needed to pull it back just a little. This is an incredibly well-directed movie that was doing its thing, doing everything well, but it kept trying to continue the sex after both parties were long done and ready to fall asleep. Roger Ebert spoke about the film, saying it felt like satire, and maybe that was part of the intent for this type of ending, but it doesn’t come across well. Watching this again, I appreciated how tightly some parts fit together, how some of the revelations about relationships between certain characters and figures we never even saw made the story feel stronger, but amidst the deep-seated treachery and cunning plans, this killer flick tries to twist the knife too many times to leave a proper calling card.
Wild Things is clever, but not too clever, like an over-complicated version of Bound that wanted to go the distance without knowing how to pace itself or not be convoluted. It was successful, spawning three sequels somehow, which I hear are all quite bad, but its legacy has thrived because of faux controversial uproar that had some genuinely sturdy cinematic legs to stand on. It’s a complicated movie that made mistakes, willing to be laughed at while leaving viewers hot and flustered. Some will never be able to see past the summer beach bods, but this one isn’t just late-night Skinemax, it’s a crime thriller that deserves more foreplay.