Wild Things is Southern-fried melodrama with a taste for the soft core, a piece of garbage made garbage-chic thanks to whodunit twistings and film noir undercurrents aplenty. It's a steamy exploitation movie with a lot in common with Basic Instinct and Body Heat, sexually-aggressive thrillers which decided that their eroticism was going to be their most defining characteristic.
Wild Things is not high entertainment, but it has a way with drawing us into its tempting world of deceit and carnal sweat — it’s trash good enough to trick us into thinking that it isn’t trash. Without its many slow-motion sexy-time stuff, I imagine it would be more highly regarded as something better than what they play on Showtime after hours. Because skin flashes aside, this is a credible, involving neo-noir.
Matt Dillon portrays Sam Lombardo, a high school guidance counselor living on the wealthier side of Florida. He’s a recent winner of the area’s “Teacher of the Year” award, with most of the female student body dramatizing their troubles in order to get closer to him. The staff sees him as one of their finest. But he’s rather oblivious to the romantic attention that surrounds his persona. He's unaware of his appeal.
Unexpected to him, though, is the downturn his career is about to take. After taking up the sultry Kelly Van Ryan’s (Denise Richards) offer to wash his car for charity, he finds himself perplexed that the girl has told the police that he raped her; this is mostly, we find out, because he resisted her come-ons. So he finds himself in the middle of a high-profile lawsuit, only made worse when trailer trash Suzie (Neve Campbell) imitates Kelly’s claims and lands him in even hotter water. Local cop Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) has an underlying feeling that something more sinister is afoot, and without giving away the film’s many breathtaking plot twists, he’s right.
The further I traveled into the dark depths of Wild Things, the more I found myself frustrated that it has been billed as a sort of quasi-porno for the Skinemax crowd since its release, just for what comes down to a scene or two of hot and heavy make-out sessions, pre-sex interludes. What’s been ignored in the last two decades or so, thanks to scummy man-children who handle sexuality in film like a dog acts around a hamburger, is an ingeniously plotted thriller of the Brian De Palma ilk.
I can partially blame the director, John McNaughton, for Wild Things’s reputation. The film certainly doesn’t need to be so libidinous, and there’s a feeling that he knew simple-minded audiences might have trouble staying with such a complicated plot — after all, it’s more reliant on dialogue, on intrigue, than most thrillers. Unfortunately, sex sells, and Wild Things feels a lot cheaper than it actually is because it squeezes in Vaseline-on-the-camera gratuities.
But there’s much to like here, and I found great enjoyment devouring the many tricks the film has up its sleeves. It’s like Peyton Place, just set in Florida and drowned in a lot more dirt. Dillon makes for an enigmatic anti-hero, and Bacon gets to chew a lot of scenery as the straight-laced cop. I particularly relished Richards and Campbell, who bring the film to deliriously outrageous levels with their lethal combination of wickedness and steaminess. Bill Murray stops by with a hilarious supporting turn as a slimy lawyer.
Wild Things pushes boundaries left and right, making it more intent on shocking than it is on being confident enough to let its storyline speak for itself. The sexual elements are problematic — especially the false rape accusation — but the knowing atmosphere, combined with the breathy punches of the plot, turns it into a special, scrumptious B-movie treat. B+