Filmmaker John McNaughton established himself with the highly influential film Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (1986) which he co-wrote and directed. Over the course of his career McNaughton proved to have an affinity for thrillers that emphasized the methodology of crime. Of those films Wild Things (1998) is the best known and most popular. Not so much because of McNaughton’s contributions but because of its eroticism which often features stars Denise Richards and Neve Campbell in various states of undress.
In hindsight many consider the nineties to be a “golden age” for the erotic thriller. These films, including Wild Things, were made in a reaction to laws that had come into place to protect people from sexual predators. Men in particular felt threatened by these laws and as a result films like Wild Things often feature women exploiting these laws for their own personal gain. It’s a variation on the fantasy of self-annihilation.
However, Wild Things seemingly turns this on its head. In Wild Things every act break comes with a major new reveal that totally re-contextualizes the previous act. The first act of Wild Things seems to adhere to the aforementioned trope by having Matt Dillon’s character framed for rape by his students Campbell and Richards. It’s only after Dillon’s name is cleared that it is revealed that the girls are in on a caper for eight million dollars.
The plot is a variation on James M. Cain’s themes of duplicity, manipulation and greed working within the American legal system. Wild Things takes Cain’s concepts and tropes, updates them, then puts a new sleek and sexy finish on them. McNaughton’s proclivity for sexualizing violence does much to put a contemporary spin on the whole affair; lending the pulpy material a layer of sleaze that was typically reserved for the straight to video markets.
Yet for all of this set dressing and every attempt to defy the traditional tropes of the genre, Wild Things is ultimately a film about a femme fatal getting the best of a couple of scumbag bums. McNaughton’s stylistic flourishes, though while amusing, never amount to the kind of reflexive commentary of a Paul Verhoeven or Adrian Lyne. What McNaughton does accomplish is to reiterate the relevancy of this genre in terms of its sexual spectacle.Wild Things is clever enough to imagine breaking the mold of women exploiting the law to control men but is not a brave or audacious enough film to commit to that idea.