Tuesday 20 January 2015

Movie Review: Wild Things (1998)

A neo-noir with an abundance of style and seduction, Wild Things saturates the screen with back-stabbing characters up to absolutely no good, although the fun goes somewhat off the rails in the final third.

In the posh Miami community of Blue Bay, hunky high school counsellor Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) is fending off the advances of cheerleader Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards). Sam used to be the lover of Kelly's mother Sandra (Theresa Russell), one of Blue Bay's richest women. Meanwhile, Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell) is a white trash teenager from the wrong side of the tracks, holding a deep grudge against Sergeant Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) of the local police force. Suzie holds Ray responsible for the shooting death of a friend. Whenever he can, Sam tries to help Suzie, who is held in contempt by Kelly.

Blue Bay is rocked when Kelly accuses Sam of rape. Sandra hires high-priced attorney Tom Baxter (Robert Wagner) to seek justice for her daughter, while a shocked Sam can only afford cut-rate lawyer Ken Bowden (Bill Murray) to represent him. The case makes headlines, and takes a sensational turn when Suzie comes forward to claim that she too was raped by Sam. With his prospects looking grim, Sam's fate is in the uncertain hands of the less than trustworthy Ken.

The synopsis covers barely half the film. Once Ken starts to interrogate Suzie, the revelations cause outright pandemonium, and the courtroom twist is only the first of many to come. Wild Things has plenty of secrets waiting to bust out, as the characters carry many hidden motivations and brutal scores to settle. This is a small film with a big agenda, drawing on the rich noir legacy to bring forward a convoluted story of seduction, big money, betrayal, revenge and class warfare in the Miami heat.

Wild Things is filmed in vivid colours, accompanied by a siren call of a George S. Clinton music score, dripping with the dangerous sensuality of the Florida swamps. And for the most part, director John McNaughton steers the film with silky smoothness, introducing the many characters and focusing on the pervasive lust in a community with too much money and too much time dedicated to rapacious pursuits.

Wild Things' appeal is in updating most of the noir elements into a hyper-driven modern context. The schemers are younger, the money bigger, the scandal more sensational, and the sex more intense, particularly a legendary threesome that provides an exclamation mark next to the film's crowning revelation. But the film also forges ahead with a plot that while comprehensible, just pushes for too many convolutions. Once the twists start coming, they never stop, and with a new reveal every few minutes as the film enters its final half an hour, the surprises lose their edge.

The cast is outstanding in depth and execution. The roles are almost all played straight, with Richards and Russell providing gallons of fervor, Campbell contributing dark broodiness, while Dillon and Bacon (who also served as executive producer) play the men who don't quite know how little control they have. Murray is a riot as a crooked lawyer in unkempt suits, with the twinkle in his eye suggesting that the ruffled persona may just be a camouflage for a sharper than expected mind. Where the wild things roam, nothing is as it seems.

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