Wild Things is a 1998 erotic thriller which is usually seen as a tacky, trashy sex movie set in the glossy upper class world of Blue Bay, Florida. This week we take a closer look at this film, examining its complex plot as a clue to what lies beneath the bikini-clad surface. We examine various aspects of the film that are hallmarks of classical theatre, from the soundtrack as a Greek chorus to the theme of water as a form of catharsis that runs throughout the film. The concept of theatre-within-theatre is also explored, focusing on two scenes in the film where the producers are self-consciously admitting what it is they are doing. We round off talking about the implications of the film for a modern America that is largely ignorant of its classical roots.
I thought we’d do something a little different today and look at a film that isn’t state sponsored in any way and which most people think is just a trashy erotic thriller. 1998’s Wild Things stars Matt Dillon, Denise Richards and Neve Campbell and while it hasn’t been slated that heavily, it wasn’t a critical success. It made back about 3 times its budget, probably thanks to a very alluring poster and marketing campaign focused on the sexual dimensions of the film. I’m guessing most of the $55 million dollars in revenue came from single men and adolescents. The three spin offs, which are not our concern today, were all straight-to-DVD and largely just recycle the first film, each time diluting it so by the fourth film it’s actually quite poor.
But the first film is, in my opinion, massively underrated. While Denise Richards is not the best actress in the world, and Matt Dillon struggles even to play himself let alone anyone else, Neve Campbell is consistently wry and funny and the addition of Bill Murray makes it worth watching just on that score. I’ve been a fan of Murray ever since first seeing Ghostbusters when I was about 6 years old and I’ve seen no reason to change my opinion on him in the 25 years or so since then.
The film also has a ludicrously convoluted plot, which I will attempt to summarise: The film is set in Blue Bay, a wealthy coastal town near Miami, and in the nearby very poor area of the Glades. Our story begins with Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon), a popular guidance counsellor at the high school, which is very well to-do, has a yachting class that Sam runs, that sort of thing. He is sexually pursued by the coquettish Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) despite having previously had an affair with her mother, Sandra.
Kelly ends up accusing Sam of raping her, followed by another student – Suzi Toller (Neve Campbell) who provides near-identical details to the police, appearing to corroborate Kelly’s story. Sam hires Ken Bowden (Bill Murray), a small-time shyster lawyer, to defend him. At the trial Suzi admits under cross-examination that Sam didn’t rape anyone and that the whole thing was a scheme by Kelly to take revenge on Sam for sleeping with her mother but not with her. Sam is exonerated, and successfully sues Sandra Van Ryan for millions of dollars.
It then emerges that the scheme Suzi revealed in court is just a cover story, and that Sam, Kelly and Suzi are all in on it. They have a threesome in a seedy motel to celebrate getting their hands on all this money. Meanwhile, the cops who originally investigated the rape allegations figure out that they’d been played as suckers, and Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) blames the whole thing on Sam and claims he’s going to kill Suzi and Kelly. He starts to press the girls, trying to get them to confess, leading to Suzi and Kelly have a violent argument in a swimming pool that turns into a lesbian love session, which Ray is secretly filming.
Ray gets into a lot of trouble for this, leading his superiors to tell him to stay away from it. Then we see Suzi, Sam and Kelly meet up again, and Sam kills Suzi. When Ray finds out about Suzi’s disappearance he assumes Sam is guilty, and that Kelly is next. He goes to the Van Ryan house to try to protect Kelly, there is some kind of fight that we don’t see, ending up with Ray being shot in the shoulder and Kelly being shot dead. Ray is kicked off the police force, as this is the second time he has ‘accidentally’ killed a teenager, the first being a friend of Suzi’s some years earlier.
In another twist, Ray then travels down to the Caribbean and meets up with Sam, and it emerges that Ray was in on the plot all along. They go out on Sam’s newly-purchased yacht, where Sam tries to kill Ray in revenge for Ray murdering Kelly. They fight, and then Suzi (who was never really dead) intervenes with a harpoon gun and kills Ray in revenge for him murdering her friend. Sam and Suzi begin to sail off into the sunset, but not before Suzi murders Sam by poisoning him and throwing him overboard. During the title credits we see various additional scenes explaining how Suzi, who has a genius-level IQ, masterminded the whole thing, blackmailing Sam into getting involved, Sam then recruited Ray while Suzi seduced Kelly. We see the faking of Suzi’s death and how Ray murdered Kelly, before settling up with a scene of Bill Murray handing over the money to Suzi, showing how he was critically involved in the plot.
There isn’t really a shorter way of explaining the plot of Wild Things, it is extraordinarily complex and has such a high number of twists and revelations that you’re never sure who is on which side, who you are supposed to be rooting for. That is a huge part of the film’s charm, because most of the characters are not very likeable and so the plot very much gives you permission to dislike them. At the same time, it is a very pleasant film aesthetically, despite the questionable acting performances. It is very well directed, the music is great and it is very well paced so despite the overly complicated plot you’re never lost. I really like this film, and I think that just as within the plot, there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye. That is perhaps the recurring theme of the film, that there’s a more going on under the surface, and so I think we should take a closer look at the film to see how this all works.
You should probably consider the rest of this episode a case study in dramatic technique more than anything else. I studied drama for four years at school and was always much more interested in how writing works, in dramatic theory than in pratting about on stage. This is one of the reasons I’m good at understanding narrative cinema, it’s all just Greek theatre, in my opinion storytelling has barely evolved in the last 3000 years. So how is Wild Things a piece of classical drama?
Class in Wild Things
For one thing, it is a story about social and economic class, and focuses largely on the world of the upper class and those around them. Just like in Shakespeare and in Roman and Greek theatre a millennium earlier, the dirty secrets of the ruling class fascinates audiences. It’s like we’re getting a glimpse behind the curtain, a quick look at something we’re not allowed to see. Nothing is more exciting than doing something you’re not supposed to do and getting away with it, and we’re all voyeurs to some extent.
So, the upper class who control Blue Bay in Wild Things are basically the Athenian aristocracy or whoever else you wish to substitute for them. And they are not portrayed well in the film, Sandra Van Ryan especially is a complete bitch. There’s this hilarious scene when she’s ranting at the police that Sam raped her daughter when she shouts ‘he must be insane to think he can do this to me!’. She is spectacularly isolated and self absorbed, you’re very much supposed to see her as a disgusting, pathetic person who doesn’t really care about her child.
This is contrasted with various lower class characters who are much more honest and likeable and who ultimately win out. At the beginning of the film Suzi is living in a trailer park, barely scraping by but due to her intelligence and ruthlessness she ends up with millions of dollars and everyone thinking she’s dead so she gets away with it. So just as it plays to our voyeurism about the ruling class, it also plays to our love of the underdog. While our sympathies are having to be constantly re-evaluated due to the twisting plot, the ending does seem quite natural and even just, in a way, or morally right. We love seeing the downtrodden get one over on the snobs, that’s certainly a feeling that appeals to a lot of people.
Wild Things as Melodrama
So the film is a melodrama, a tale of conspiracy and deceit and treachery and revelation and all these other dramatic themes that have been around for thousands of years. Themes that everyone can understand and relate to because everyone has seen or experienced these things to some extent.
Also, music plays a key role in Wild Things. The soundtrack is quite varied, sometimes funny, sometimes sexy, sometimes scary. There are a lot of elements in there, if you listen closely you’ll even hear homages to Hitchcock’s Psycho. The music plays several roles, not least of which is warning you that something is about to happen but also to hint at whatever is the subtext to what’s on the screen. Not just the score itself but the way music is used in this film is very emotive and clever.
But the one part of the music I want to focus on is the theme song, which endlessly repeats in variations throughout the film. This is the melody that puts the melo in melodrama. It features a human voice, but without lyrics. The sounds are largely emotive in nature.
This music has the function of a Greek chorus, used for a variety of purposes but perhaps most commonly to help guide the audience’s reactions. The Greek chorus is there as a bridge between the stage and the audience, so if they’re not sure whether something is supposed to be funny or sad, the chorus helps them by ‘reacting’ to the performance. By having a human voice in the film but one that doesn’t speak this isn’t about predicting or describing events, which can be a function of a dramatic chorus, but is once again aimed at conveying hidden meanings or emotions, or simply that there are hidden meanings and emotions. Singing without lyrics is like speaking without words – you can communicate something, but nothing specific.
Theatre within Theatre
That all of this is being done consciously by the producers is shown by the presence of numerous theatre-within-theatre elements to the movie. For example, the trial sequence about 40 minutes into the film, when Sam is accused of rape, hinges on an exchange between Suzi and Sam’s lawyer who is cross examining her:
This is where the story starts to twist and turn quickly, indeed the whole plot hinges on this exchange, both in the sense of the plot of the film and the conspiratorial plot within the film. Now, courtrooms have an inherent theatricality about them, a ritualistic theatrical aspect. But in this case it’s highlighted very well – in their roles within the courtroom, Suzi and Ken are antagonistic, set against one another. Ken is trying to defend his client against Suzi and Kelly’s accusations. But as we find out later they are working together, and this is all just taking advantage of the theatricality of the court to spin a bit of theatre of their own.
Another dimension to this theatre-within-theatre is that everyone in the film overacts at times, at least the ones who are part of the plot. The style is slightly cheesy and not altogether convincing. But that’s quite appropriate, given that they’re lying, they are playing roles to make sure events pan out as planned, even the ones who don’t know who is in charge of the plan.
One especially good scene is when Ray figures out that Suzi, Kelly and Sam are in it together. Or at least where he pretends to figure this out:
I do enjoy this, no one plays a hardball macho prick quite like Kevin Bacon. And I do like the line about the Kennedy assassination. But most critical is where Bacon says ‘they were acting! they were all acting!’ because he is right but at the same time this is all for show. He derails any serious investigation into Sam and Kelly and Suzi’s conspiracy by pushing too hard with his own fake investigation. So the guy that’s telling us that they were acting is acting himself. This isn’t an accident of writing.
There is also the mildly occult dimension to the story, where Suzi fakes her own death and assumes a new identity. Likewise you could see Kelly’s death as a sacrifice, Kevin Bacon’s character as a bullish willing fool, Suzi referring to an ancient myth when she kills Sam – I can only assume these implications were put in deliberately. In giving us a glimpse behind the curtain of the ruling class the writer is also giving us a glimpse into ancient archetypes that have existed as long as ruling classes have existed. Indeed, one could argue whether such theatre, that gives the ordinary people a fleeting glance at the lives of the aristocracy, is ultimately useful to that aristocracy. In a lot of ancient Greek theatre this was definitely so, theatre as the primary art form was a means of social control, though I think Wild Things is doing something a bit different, which I will get to shortly.
Water Symbolism and Catharsis
One other dimension I’d like to pick out for you is how much water there is in this film. The opening sequence shows us the water-soaked Florida glades, the Van Ryan mansion looks out onto the sea, there is a lot of people swimming, when Sam is attacked by Sandra Van Ryan’s boyfriend he is beaten up in the water, and both Sam and Ray die while at sea. The film ends on a beach, with water in the background. Basically, there is more than the usual amount of water in this film.
Why is this, aside from the setting? From a classical drama point of view, water is a symbol of cleansing. It washes away blood from a murder, but also it symbolises the cleansing of the soul of the sin of murder. Which brings us to the Greek dramatic notion of catharsis, that tragedy (and other types of drama) can help a society cleanse itself of such crimes by acting as a kind of warning against them. By showing how a fatal character flaw, a tragic flaw, such as laziness or deceitfulness can destroy a person within the context of a play, people are more mindful of this in the real world and less likely to give in to their character flaws.
Whether or not this is what Wild Things is trying to do, I am not sure, but I do think they’re including all this water because of this symbolic significance. For example, when Ray goes to confront Kelly when he first figures out the plot, or pretends to, she is swimming. She could have been doing anything, but she’s swimming, as though she’s trying to get clean. She is interrupted by Ray and has to flee from the pool area, get away from the cleansing water, to avoid his questions. Throughout the film, everyone is trying to be cleansed in some way but pretty much everyone fails, often resulting in their deaths.
What is Wild Things trying to say?
So what is this film about? What is it trying to say? If you want to look a bit more into some of the parallels between this film and ancient myths then I can highly recommend a chapter I found on the site of trident.edu, some sort of military college. It is titled ‘John McNaughton’s Wild Things: Pop Culture Echoes of Medea in the 1990s‘ and while the writer clearly doesn’t have a lot of respect for the film their analysis is well informed and provocative.
What I think is going on here is that by offering up such a shallow world, but with a plot that is so complex and full of twists, they’re making it clear that there’s more going on in this film, they’re encouraging us to look deeper. I think they are partly using Blue Bay as a metaphor for the United States itself, saying that beneath the glossy veneer of wealth and consumerism lies a pretty corrupt society that is very violent and full of deceit.
Indeed, by playing on a lot of tropes common to US high school movies, particularly 1980s sex comedies, they are building a very familiar cinematic world. But they then subvert that world with a story that would never find its way into that kind of film, one that has much more profound themes than the extremely superficial appearance of the film and its marketing.
In doing this I believe they are commenting on how US culture is largely unaware of history. Most Americans barely know the 250 years of their own country’s history, let alone the thousands of years that came before that. Just as many Americans conceive of the world beyond America as some kind of desolate third world that is dangerous and scary, many Americans conceive of any time before about 1850 as some kind of horrible fantasy full of smallpox. This is, incidentally, why the politics of nostalgia from Ron Paul’s ‘Plan to Restore America’ to Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ are so successful in the US. You can promise to bring back the good old days and no one will ever call you on it because no one can remember the old days, let alone whether or not they were good.
So, in incorporating themes and techniques from classical drama, in a story where almost everyone is deceived, Wild Things is commenting on how easy it is to deceive Americans due to their lack of awareness of the classical era. Even though all the original government buildings in the US are based on the Renaissance Greco-Roman style, the people visiting these buildings have no concept of the relevance of that. To them it’s just nice shiny white marble because America is the greatest country in the world, or something. And I don’t mean to beat up on Americans here, stupidity and ignorance is by no means a particularly American trait, but try asking most Americans who invented democracy and see how many of them say Ancient Athens, compared to how many of them think America invented democracy. You’ll see what I mean.
So you see how Wild Things does this, by using a cheesy acting style and very superficial visual qualities the film draws our attention to the seedy underworld propping up this gleaming, seemingly pleasant society. They are perhaps trying to cleanse American society of its sheer stupidity and ignorance by holding up a mirror and showing that society how it is engaged in the same struggles as people were thousands of years ago. The New World is just the Old World with a new name, America has not escaped the struggles of European society or of human society. That is what I believe Wild Things is saying.