In McNaughton’s 1998 thriller, “Wild Things,” Florida is depicted as a particularly seedy place. The peaceful and affluent Miami neighborhood of Blue Bay is thrown into chaos when high school counselor Sam Lombardo (played by Matt Dillon) is accused of rape by two of his students: wealthy socialite Kelly Van Ryan (played by Denise Richards) and socially outcast Suzie Toller (played by Neve Campbell).
During the highly publicized trial, the girls eventually crumble under questioning and admit that their accusations were made up in order to get back at Sam for what they believed were various wrongdoings. When Sam is awarded a settlement of $8.5 million for defamation, police sergeant Ray Duquette (played by Kevin Bacon) becomes suspicious and goes against his superiors’ orders to investigate if the three girls were working together from the beginning.
The movie’s storyline may appear to be taken straight from the pages of cheap, sensational novels often found in airport bookstores. It contains enough sexual content and violent scenes to capture one’s attention until it’s time to board a flight. Familiar elements of film noir are present: convoluted schemes, deceitful characters, and a determined detective seeking the truth. However, similar to the genre it pays tribute to, the film’s underlying ambitions are cleverly concealed beneath its sunny setting – a picturesque Florida landscape and a dreamy, banjo-accompanied jazz soundtrack that serve as a façade for the deceitful desires of Blue Bay’s residents.
Although Dillon and Bacon give impressive performances in their respective roles, it is the two female leads who truly shine in Wild Things. Neve Campbell, known for her heartthrob status in teen films, brilliantly portrays Suzie as a sex predator. On the other hand, Denise Richards, fresh off the success of Scream, surprises viewers with her mischievous portrayal of Kelly, subverting her good-girl image. Richards’ stunning appearance in every scene captures the attention of both the characters in the film and the audience.
In a movie where women hold a lot of power, it’s understandable that McNaughton considers Wild Things to be his most politically charged work. Aside from its sharp commentary on gender, the film also highlights the stark class differences present in the Blue Bay community. As an outsider due to his working-class job, Sam is immediately kicked out of the local country club after being accused of rape, a popular hangout spot for the wealthy residents of Blue Bay. However, once he is proven innocent, he quickly resumes his position within this affluent society. “I’m just doing what rich guys do,” he tells himself as he withdraws money from the bank. “I’m spending my money.”
Simultaneously, the police officers are not portrayed in a positive light and are consistently depicted as awkward and lacking skill. Ray’s personal vendetta against Sam clouds his judgement when he illegally enters the Van Ryan property in hopes of getting the teenage girls to admit to their wrongdoing. His colleague, Detective Perez, is the only character in the movie who shows some sense of moral standards. However, by the end of the film, the corruption has already taken root – it is too late to rectify the situation.
Wild Things goes beyond just sexual content and violent scenes. At its heart, it cleverly exposes how greed camouflages itself beneath attractive surfaces. Critics initially overlooked this message upon its release. As Ray advises a junior officer, people are not always who they seem to be, and this rings especially true in a movie filled with deception.
You can watch Wild Things on Netflix. To find more suggestions for streaming options in Australia, click here.