The opening shots of John McNaughton’s sun-drenched 1998 noir Wild Things efficiently lay out the dynamics of the South Florida community of Blue Bay. As the sun rises, cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball’s camera swoops over the swampland of the Florida Everglades, catching an alligator peeking its head out of the water, and then to the tacky strip malls and cookie-cutter suburban houses, on to the downtown office buildings and then to the sprawling (and equally tacky) estates of the rich blue bloods that run the appropriately named town.
The movie then settles in at Blue Bay High School for what initially looks like a familiar ’90s teen drama, with boorish jocks, bitchy popular girls and moody outcasts. But McNaughton and screenwriter Stephen Peters subvert those expectations right away, as guidance counselor Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) prompts whoops from the assembled student body by writing “sex” on the blackboard, and then groans when he adds the word “crimes.” The thesis of the movie is literally written in large letters right there: It’s about sex and crimes, and how those two intersect and influence each other.
Sitting in the auditorium’s front row is Blue Bay High queen bee Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards), whose contemptuous delivery of “Fuck off” is the movie’s first spoken line, as she fends off the advances of an uncouth high school boy. Sam and Kelly are far more intertwined than they first appear, although it takes pretty much the entire movie to reveal the extent of their entanglement. That’s one of the greatest pleasures of Wild Things, a thriller that seems to have purchased its plot twists in bulk, and always deploys them at the exact right moment. It’s the perfect movie for the era of Melrose Place, teen horror and upbeat alt-rock, combining those elements with the noir tradition of convoluted stories about sultry reprobates making bad decisions.
At first it seems like Sam is the one who’s made a tragically bad decision, and Kelly may be the movie’s femme fatale. The teen invites herself and one of her fellow cheerleaders over to wash Sam’s car for a charity car wash, and then manipulates the situation so that she and Sam are alone in his house. One cut to black later, and she’s accusing Sam of rape, provoking the outrage of her equally sultry, equally entitled mother Sandra (Theresa Russell), who fumes, “My daughter does not get raped in Blue Bay!” Sam denies the charges brought by local police detectives Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega), and he hires sleazy personal injury lawyer Ken Bowden (Bill Murray), the only attorney in town willing to defend him.
The performances and dialogue in the movie’s first half are all as overheated as the oppressive Florida humidity, but it’s still possible to see Wild Things as a fairly straight-faced drama about sexual assault and class conflict, especially once teen delinquent Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell) comes forward to accuse Sam as well. Testifying at Sam’s sensationalistic trial, Kelly sneers, “He raped me on the floor of his shitty house,” before Suzie breaks down on the stand and admits that she and Kelly conspired to make the whole story up. Is this an unfortunate cautionary tale about the dangers of false rape accusations from jailbait sexpots?
McNaughton and Peters have demonstrated enough knowing cleverness to indicate that they wouldn’t take the story in such a distasteful direction, since Wild Things’ delightful tastelessness is far more salacious than that. And indeed Sam is neither a victim nor an upstanding guy. Following the dismissal of the charges against him and the signing of a massive settlement with Sandra Van Ryan, he heads back to his room at a seedy motel, where he’s greeted by both Kelly and Suzie for celebratory champagne and sex, in a threesome scene that garnered the movie its most attention and controversy in 1998, and still generates plenty of erotic heat, even if it’s a little tame in retrospect.
And that’s just half the movie. From there, the twists expand exponentially, although McNaughton and Peters make each new development clear and even logical in a twisted way. There’s a wry tone to much of the noir conventions, especially during Murray’s scenes as Bowden, but Wild Things isn’t a parody, and its jokes aren’t about mocking or belittling the characters. As goofy as Murray makes him, Bowden is one of the savviest characters in the whole movie, and everyone else who appears to embody a stereotype at first eventually breaks that stereotype.
During the infamous threesome scene, Sam first kisses Kelly and then kisses Suzie, and then encourages the two of them to kiss each other, playing out his tiresome straight male fantasy. But these two aren’t just obliging the older man who holds power over them. Wild Things isn’t quite a queer romance between Kelly and Suzie, but it’s pretty clear that there’s more of a genuine connection between the two young women than there is between either of them and Sam, and Richards and Campbell (both doing some of their best work) have undeniable chemistry in the handful of scenes in which Kelly and Suzie are allowed to be intimate. That intimacy isn’t just performative, although even when they think they’re alone, making out in Kelly’s pool, Ray Duquette is hidden nearby, recording the whole thing for dubious investigative purposes.
Duquette, with his eyes going wide as he quickly zooms in on the two young women getting hot and heavy, could be an audience stand-in at that moment, and Wild Things never pretends that it isn’t titillating. The more twists and unexpected liaisons the filmmakers pile on, the more they can play with the audience’s expectations. There are numerous fake-out endings, and by the time that two characters are celebrating together on a boat in the final act, the filmmakers are just teasing viewers with the next betrayal.
Eventually, though, the right people sail off into the sunset and walk away with the money, and Wild Things provides justice for the characters who deserve it. “Be good,” Bowden tells the eventual victor in the last of the entertainingly excessive five mid-credits scenes, and in a demented, wholly entertaining way, that’s exactly what that person has been doing the entire time.