Live Dogs And Dead Lions: Jonathan Demme’s SOMETHING WILD

Jonathan Demme's outlaw romance is one of the best love stories to emerge from '80s cinema.

“You’re a really good liar when you wanna be.”

We often hide in plain sight. Covered in the clothes we’ve sold ourselves as being “our look”, it’s easy to get caught up in predilections that may not even be self-cultivated. They come from where we come from, who we come from, who we’ve been taught to associate with, how our demeanor will attract certain “types”, and just why we’ve been told we should avoid others that don’t fit these particular molds. We are mounds of clay, often shaped by forces we don’t even acknowledge or, if we do, don’t have the gall to question or reject. Any form of rebellion is channeled into the mainstream; tiny flashes of erratic behavior that really don’t involve any risk at all, because they’re bullshit deceits we’ve concocted to help convince ourselves we aren’t actually boring human beings. In short, we’re often Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) – newly minted accounting Vice President, and certified milquetoast extraordinaire.

Or are we? That’s the question Jonathan Demme asks with Something Wild, his ‘86 yuppie outlaw road trip to the dark side of town. On the surface, it’s a relatively unpretentious fish out of water, “boy meets girl” story, revolving around the aforementioned white collar Manhattanite dweeb (Daniels) and black-bobbed wild child, Lulu Hankel (Melanie Griffith), who catches Mr. Driggs blithely pocketing his lunch check without paying. What ensues is a weekend jaunt, where Lulu emboldens “Charlie” (a newly minted moniker she almost seems to taunt him with) to loosen his collar and let go – a gauntlet of reckless abandon where societal norms certainly don’t apply.

Beneath this rather shallow veneer is another eternal question posed by both Demme and writer E. Max Frye: who or what makes us happy, and why? Much like the morality of the movie (which isn’t afraid to go distressingly dark in its rough and tumble second half), the answer isn’t so black and white. That’s what renders Something Wild so relentlessly fascinating and entertaining, even upon multiple re-watches: the picture’s gun point demand that you look under the surface of these straight man and wild child archetypes and see the inquiries you’re often terrified to pose toward yourself.

“It’s hard to imagine someone like you growing up,” Charlie says to Lulu when she proposes going back to her hometown. But what’s somewhat ridiculous about this statement (outside of the obvious rejection of identity) is that everything shared up to this point during the two’s impromptu trek has been a complete lie. When Charlie calls home to his wife and kids (who may or may not actually exist), we can hear the dial tone through the receiver as he blathers on about having a “business meeting” in Philadelphia over the weekend. So as much as he can’t see beyond the exterior of a girl who crashes used cars, only to dupe a local salesman into selling her another, he’s putting up just as much of a front. His is simply in the service of “respectability”, and it seems Charlie’s manufactured personality comes complete with a lack of imagination.

Lulu, on the other hand, lets her truths trickle out, little by little. As she and Charlie arrive at her mother’s home, she introduces the blue-eyed boy in a cheap suit as her husband. “Call me Audrey,” she tells him, and he obliges. They’ve been married since September, and Charlie’s even started fixing up a room for the child they plan on having together. Flustered, Charlie can’t imagine why Lulu (excuse me, Audrey) has suddenly shed the skin of her more spontaneous self. Later that night, Audrey takes Charlie as a date to her ten year high school reunion, having dyed her hair from black to blonde; ready to present yet another self to those who knew her long ago. She’s a chameleon with a Betty Boop voice, equally petrified to fully step out into the light and let this increasingly charming man see her.

However, Audrey’s lies help to empower Charlie, who sees a co-worker (Jack Gilpin) at the gathering and instantaneously loses his damn mind. Just the day before, he was lying to his boss about why he couldn’t come back to work. If this guy goes to the office and blabs about seeing him here, he can kiss that recent VP promotion (and the rest of his comfortable yuppie existence) goodbye. Audrey instead insists that he relax. He’s a hero to this guy, seemingly uninhibited in a way most of their colleagues could never be, and it’s only once he embraces this new illusion that he can truly cut loose. The two of them may be con artists, but once their bullshit becomes intertwined, they cannot be stopped. Charlie realizes they’re a team, and that’s when he starts to finally accept that he might actually love this crazy girl.

You’d think a blossoming relationship that was predicated almost entirely on perpetual falsehoods would have “Born to Lose” tattooed on its chest, but really the lies being told by both Charlie and Audrey are completely natural. In the beginning, when we first meet someone and sparks fly, it’s easy to want to hide who you really are from the other person. What if they think I’m lame? What if I think I’m lame already? There’s a fear that these personality constructs we create won’t be accepted by those we fall in love with. Yet that’s the genius of Demme’s picture: it’s willingness to allow these lies to erode and give way to naked truths both Charlie and Audrey hold dear, and in turn find endearing about each other. Once Audrey’s past manifests itself in the form of a thrill-ride robber of an ex-boyfriend (Ray Liotta, in his first major role), then Charlie has to make an extreme version of a choice every new couple is faced with at some point: can I live with this person’s past, and how much of it have they truly left behind?

Only Jonathan Demme – arguably one of the most empathetic directors in history – could’ve made Something Wild. His is a cinema of openness; wide arms embracing not only Americana (cinematographer Tak Fujimoto captures every billboard and rolling hill with loving élan), but the various, diverse individuals who make up the small New York and Pennsylvania towns Charlie and Audrey pass through. Familiar faces like John Waters (playing a skeevy used car dealer) and John Sayles (decked out as a motorcycle trooper) mingle amongst lumpy men and women of different colors, representing the melting pot Demme has always been besotted with. This love of diversity only helps strengthen the through-line of wanton fixation, as one could venture a guess that Charlie would never encounter these folks had Audrey not caught him trying to slip that lunch bill into his jacket pocket. Like all great loves, it has taken Charlie outside of his comfortable universe, as he tags along with this seemingly untamed woman through the heart of a country he barely knows, thanks to a lifestyle he sold himself as needing instead of wanting.

“Remember, no matter what, it’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion.” This is a piece advice given to Charlie by a temporary neighbor at a rundown motel. At first, the beguiling statement seems to be nothing more than a sly slice of country wisdom, handed down along with a bottle of stomach-easing Pepto-Bismol. Yet in reality, this becomes the defining thesis of Something Wild. Charlie is the lion – regal in stature, and looked upon by colleagues and co-workers as a “real go-getter”, the type of nonsense accomplishment that amounts to nothing more than filler on a resume that will be shredded once you’re covered in your grave. However, with Audrey, he learns to be a dog, completely cool with being a little mangy and dangerous. He’s alive in a way he forgot was possible, thanks to being forced to confront his own lies along with his new partner’s. Because the burden of an identity holds nothing in comparison to finding out your heart can still be handcuffed to a wily outlaw. We should all hope to be dogs instead of lions.

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