In the late 90s, there were two contemporary films I absolutely would not shut up about: Joe Dante’s SMALL SOLDIERS (1998, and there is video footage out there somewhere of me drunkenly ranting about how it should have had at least one Oscar nomination) and John McNaughton’s WILD THINGS (also released in 1998, and I would repeatedly tell people: it’s not the soft-core porn you think it is).
WILD THINGS means different things to different people. Most folks only remember it for the threesome scenes between a never-better Denise Richards, Neve Campbell (always giving it her all), and an amazingly duplicitous Matt Dillon, or they remember Bill Murray’s very sleazy turn as an amoral, neck-braced lawyer, or they remember it because out-of-nowhere, there’s Kevin Bacon’s cock and there’s definitely a romantic subtext to his character and Dillon’s (which, honestly, is basically text — initially that was written in the script).
However, I remember it because it’s a goddamn sun-soaked gonzo neo-noir that is so bat-shit-crazy that the film felt the need to explain itself in the end credits. That’s the memory I took with me when I went to rewatch it at the Music Box Theatre (absolutely killing it this month), with McNaughton in-attendance for a post-film interview with Dmitry Samarov (whose brilliant self-reflective work HACK you should definitely seek out).
Also, both McNaughton and Samarov just happened to be sitting behind me and watched the entire film — not a brag, just a dumb coincidence, as that sort of positioning makes me super-anxious, like when I ended up seated next to Karina Longsworth for her YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS Chicago wintertime screening of OUTRAGE.
I’ll note that: if you’ve been to enough of these sort of ‘director interview’ screenings, it’s rare that the folks involved sit through the entire film. They usually dart off for dinner or drinks and arrive just as the credits roll. I don’t blame them! I’m just shocked when they opt to endure it!
WILD THINGS holds up with aplomb, and also takes on a severely different context today than it did before, while also being a timeless tale. At first it feels very #MeToo, and then it takes a turn, then another turn, then another turn, then it twists, and then again and it will leave you breathless. It is not the film you expect it to be; it’s quintessential noir to its goddamn bones.
In other words: it’s all about sex, power play, and beguilement. Nothing more noir than that, and it all takes place in the humid air of Miami, one of the least noir locations you can think of.
Seeing it in 35mm — McNaughton’s personal print, I’ll add — only made it better. Like most, I first saw it on a well-worn VHS tape from a local rental store as opposed to projected in a theater. It’s that sort of trash — which McNaughton extolls and he specifically told us that that was the intent of the film — but it’s a beautiful alchemy of trash.
While everyone on board knew how brazenly ridiculous the script was, they treated it dead-seriously, and it’s all there on the screen, from the script punch-ups that really give life to the characters, the lush settings, the convoluted narrative, as well as the breezy score, it is trashy perfection.
Stay for the credits, as it’s hand-down, one of the most memorable end-credits sequence ever shot. Marvel could learn a lot from WILD THINGS.
While there are a number of straight-to-video sequels, I have not seen any of them and cannot vouch for them (at this time).
I was lucky enough to pick McNaughton’s brain a bit after the screening, particularly about one scene on a boat that I felt riffed on Patricia Highsmith’s THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY (as well as the two best-known film adaptations: THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY (1999) — of course — but also the French adaptation of that Ripley novel: PLEIN SOLEIL).
McNaughton told me: “I love Highsmith, but no, that was never part of it.” So now you know!