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Jonathan Demme’s ‘Wild’ Road Saga Paved Way for Tarantino: Film

Ray Liotta as malevolent hood Ray Sinclair in the 1986 movie "Something Wild." The film is directed by Jonathan Demme. Source: Criterion Collection via Bloomberg

Feel like chucking that drab office job? Before acting rashly, check out Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild,” maybe the best cautionary tale ever filmed about leaving civilization behind and hitting the road.

Recently released by Criterion on DVD, the 1986 movie features Jeff Daniels as Charlie Driggs, a strait-laced New York tax consultant unexpectedly swept up in a joyride with Melanie Griffith’s free-spirited Lulu.

That name, like much else about Lulu, turns out to be an invention. (Her real name is Audrey.) After a chance meeting at a New York City diner, she and Charlie head to a cheap motel for a sexy romp. Audrey then persuades him to drive with her to Pennsylvania and pose as her husband at her 10th high-school reunion.

She’s changed her look by then. Her jet-black pageboy is now blond and instead of being swathed in African and Native American jewelry, she’s dressed like a small-town conservative.

At the reunion she bumps into her real husband, Ray (Ray Liotta), fresh out of prison and looking like a renegade from “The Wild One.” His entrance flips the movie’s tone from comic to deeply scary. By the end, Charlie has to fight not only for Audrey but for his own life.

In its funky, homespun way, “Something Wild” is a companion piece to David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” which also came out in 1986. Both are about the horrors lurking inside the ordinary.

‘Crazy Mama’

Demme started out working for producer Roger Corman as the director of such B-pictures as “Caged Heat” and “Crazy Mama.” He had two critical hits prior to “Something Wild” -- the CB-radio comedy “Handle With Care” (1977) and “Melvin and Howard” (1980), the Oscar-winning film about the genial doofus who claimed he was heir to the Howard Hughes fortune.

As Demme explains in a DVD extra, he was ready to switch careers after his dispiriting experience on “Swing Shift” (1984), a World War II drama about home-front female factory workers that starred Goldie Hawn.

The film was taken away from him, re-edited and partially re-shot, some say at Hawn’s insistence. The screenwriting credit is a pseudonym. (I once was able to see a bootleg of Demme’s original cut; it’s significantly richer than the released version.)

Demme’s excitement over E. Max Frye’s screenplay for “Something Wild” brought him back to filmmaking. His joy is palpable on the screen. A music lover, he garlands the soundtrack with pop-funk, rock and reggae, featuring everybody from John Cale and Laurie Anderson to the Feelies.

Fearsome Liotta

Over the years, some of Demme’s best work has been on music documentaries, including three movies about Neil Young and the Talking Heads film “Stop Making Sense” (1984).

“Something Wild” didn’t fare well at the box-office, perhaps because it was promoted as a goofy comedy. But it was a breakout film for Liotta, who had only appeared in soaps and bit roles until then.

Not since Richard Widmark’s giggly psychopath in “Kiss of Death” (1947) had there been such a frightening debut, even though Liotta never plays Ray like a villain. Ray always thinks he’s on the right side.

Griffith was cast because she impressed Demme as the tinkly voiced porn star Holly Body in Brian De Palma’s “Body Double” (1984). Her range in “Something Wild” is extraordinary. When Audrey is held captive by Ray, her come-hither allurements vanish and we see the scared, hard-bitten woman underneath.

Daniels, in a role originally intended for Kevin Kline, makes Charlie likable in the early scenes. It’s later on, when Charlie is half-crazed, that Daniels shows his true stuff.

With its jangly mix of levity and frights, “Something Wild” is a clear precursor to the films of Quentin Tarantino. Demme’s film, however, is far more humane than anything by Tarantino. When the people in “Something Wild” are cut, they bleed real blood.

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).

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