The 1998 film Wild Things starts out like a standard B-movie. It take place in Florida so, of course, we get a lot of shots of the sun setting on the bayous and crocodiles staring at the camera as if to ask, “What are you looking for?” Boats skim the water. High school guidance counselor Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) walks across campus while all of the toned and tanned students stop to admire him. Local rich girl Kelly Von Ryan (Denise Richards) smirks and says something snarky. Detective Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) shows up in the background and stares at the world from behind dark glasses and a serious expression. Meanwhile, local poor girl Suzie (Neve Campbell) goes back to her home, which happens to be located right behind an alligator farm.
Judging from the first few minutes, Wild Things could just as easily be an episode of CSI Miami.
But then Bill Murray shows up as Kenneth Bowden, a hilariously sleazy attorney who spends most of the movie wearing a neck brace, just in case the insurance company is watching him.
And then Theresa Russell shows up Kelly’s mother, standing on a balcony in a gold bikini and hitting on every passing man like the world’s most hyperactive cougar.
And then Carrie Snodgress shows up as Suzie’s mother, complete with an over-the-top white trash accent.
By the time that Robert Wagner shows up and literally growls at Matt Dillon: “You’re finished, Lombardo! Finished!,” you realize that Wild Things is probably the most self-aware B-movie ever made and it’s all the better for it.
As for the plot — well, let’s see if I can keep track. Suzie and Kelly both accuse Sam of rape. Sam claims to be innocent but nobody in town believes him. Sam is forced to hire the disreputable Kenneth Bowden to defend him. During the trial, Kenneth is able to prove that Kelly blamed Sam for the suicide of her father while Suzie is angry that Sam once refused to bail her out of jail on a drug charge. To get revenge, Kelly and Suzie decided to frame Sam. Sam is acquitted and, again with Bowden’s help, is able to negotiate an 8 million dollar settlement for defamation. True, Sam does lose his job but at least he’s a rich man now…
But wait a minute.
The movie still has a little over an hour to go.
Could it be that there’s more to this story?
Well, of course, there is. It turns out that Sam, Kelly, and Suzie have been working together all the time. The accusations, the trial, the defamation suit — it was all a part of a grand scheme to get the money. Sam, Kelly, and Suzie celebrate their success with champagne and a threesome.
While everyone else in town seems to be ready to move on from the entire scandal, Detective Ray Duquette is telling anyone who will listen that he thinks that Sam, Kelly, and Suzie were all in on it together. Even when Ray is ordered by his superiors to back off, Ray continues to investigate the case.
Because Ray Duquette is a cop who gets results!
Actually, it doesn’t take long to realize that there’s something off about Ray. For one thing, his obsession with Sam really does seem to be a personal thing. On top of that, Ray has a past connection with Suzie…
Wild Things has everything that you could hope for from a good exploitation film: a script that is full of double and triple crosses, unapologetically pulpy dialogue, over-the-top performances, and lots of sex. Yesterday, I reviewed Normal Life and praised John McNaughton’s decision to play up the banality of the film’s characters and locations. With Wild Things, McNaughton takes the exact opposite approach, playing up every sordid and tawdry detail to such an extent that the film itself eventually transcends such mundane concepts as good and bad.
Wild Things is a lot of fun and it’s also one of the best films of the 1990s.