Ah, the open road—so full of wonder and possibility laid out right in front of you. At least, that’s how a lot of artists over the years have interpreted that image. American cinema, especially, is full of road trips: whether the lovers-on-the-run crime sagas of You Only Live Once, Bonnie and Clyde, and Badlands; the more sociological voyages of Easy Rider and Thelma and Louise; the high-speed chase spectacles of Vanishing Point and The Road Warrior; or even the raunchy comic hijinks of Road Trip and The Hangover. Homer may have laid the groundwork for such narratives all the way back at the end of the 8th century B.C. with The Odyssey, but it took a boom in automobile production after World War II for the genre that would come to be known as the “road movie” to truly blossom.
This makes sense. Conjure up the mental image of someone behind the wheel of a car, top possibly down and/or windows possibly open, driving him/herself through an empty stretch of open road, without a clear destination in sight. It’s an image of pure, unadulterated freedom. These are certainly not feelings that would pop up in a bus or a train car; with those modes of transportation, you are at the mercy of another, often with a specific endpoint in mind. Driving your own car, however, you’re in control of your own destiny.
But of course, not all of those aforementioned cinematic road trips feature cars (Easy Rider centers around a gang of motorcyclists, after all), and certainly the earliest “road” narratives—not just Homer’s Odyssey, but also Virgil’s Aeneid—had nothing to do with cars or even America. All of these share a common emotional thread, however: that sense of freedom, that feeling that anything can happen at any time. That loss of control can often be as thrilling as it is dangerous—a truth Jack Kerouac understood when he conceived of his seminal Beat Generation tome On the Road, a work that radiates even now with the allure and peril of living a life seemingly without boundaries and attachments.
Another artist who understood the philosophical implications of the road trip was Jonathan Demme, who, in 1986, made one of the road movies par excellence in Something Wild. In some ways, it’s a surprise it took Demme so long to finally make his mark on the genre. It’s a form tailor-made for his emotionally generous sensibility, a humanist vision that vibrates with an openness toward all different kinds of people, whether the most average of average Joes—the CB radio-obsessed denizens of his 1977 comedy Handle with Care, Melvin Dummar of Melvin and Howard (1980)—or the most eccentric privileged folk, like the already mentally unstable Howard Hughes in Melvin and Howard.
Something Wild offers the odd-couple pairing of two such people: Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels), a vice-president of a banking company living a comfortable existence in a Long Island suburb, and Audrey Hankel (Melanie Griffith), a free-spirited woman seemingly without attachments, but also with a lot of money at her disposal to fund her devil-may-care ways. At first introducing herself to Charles as Lulu, Audrey basically ropes this yuppie into following her on a bizarre road trip throughout a good part of the East Coast—an adventure that, true to genre form, encompasses everything from screwball comedy to violent thriller, with the tone often shifting on a dime. Certainly, Demme’s film lives up to its title just in the all-over-the-place story it weaves.
But the film is more than just the sum of its deliberately disparate parts—especially because neither of these two characters can be easily pinned down as types. The first time we see Charles in the film, he’s walking away from a diner having not paid for his meal—an act he later justifies as his way of rebelling within the system. Whether that is in fact true or not, it’s nevertheless clear that he does have certain unruly impulses in him just itching to pop out—which naturally catches the eye of someone like Audrey, who has made such unruliness her whole mantra in life. But Audrey isn’t simply the kind of character who would later become known as the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” When Audrey makes a stop at the house of her mother, Peaches (Dana Preu), she impulsively adopts a cover story with Charles as her new husband, tossing aside the black-haired wig to reveal her short blonde hair, and exchanging her previous extravagant black attire for a more conventional white dress to further the illusion; later, at the high-school reunion she attends, two children are added to their nonexistent home life. But there’s a layer of underlying emotional truth to the elaborate fib, one that only fully reveals itself when Audrey’s ex-husband, the even more volatile Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta)—recently released from prison, but still as nutty as ever—enters the picture: Audrey, to some extent, is attracted to Charles’s relative solidity, seeing in him a chance to finally settle down. That said, it turns out that Charles himself isn’t entirely settled, either, when one of Charles’s co-workers, who is also at that high-school reunion, reveals that Charles, in fact, has been divorced from his wife for quite a few months now—a fact Ray learns and breaks to Audrey in an attempt to win her back.
For all the freedom afforded by the road-movie genre—stylistic, dramatic, or otherwise—many of them often have character arcs, usually hinging on people learning something about themselves along the way. Both Audrey and especially Charles do learn new things about themselves during this odyssey—but it’s not as simple as Audrey learning the dangers of her unfettered lifestyle and Charles becoming more of a bad-ass by embracing that same lifestyle. A key exchange late in the film between the both crystallizes Demme’s more nuanced take on these characters’ personal revelations:
Audrey: “What are you gonna do now you’ve seen how the other half lives?”
Charles: “The other half?”
Audrey: “The other half of you.”
Instead of being about self-improvement, Something Wild is more about self-awareness: a realization of how complex human beings can be. It’s fitting that the culmination of Charles’s own newfound wild side—when, toward the end of the film, he accidentally stabs Ray—is shot and staged by Demme as a kind of confrontational meeting of the self: two straight-ahead close-ups of Charles and Ray, both wearing the same plain white T-shirt, both with startled expressions of what has just occurred. It’s a moment of sobering connection for these two sworn enemies … and yet, as we come to understand in the aftermath, Charles sees this harrowing outcome not as a reason to run back to his former lifestyle, but to quit his cushy banking job and take a leap into the great unknown. The physical open road he has traversed with Audrey has finally become the mental open road of his own future.
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and The Village Voice, in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.