The 1962 Something Wild, not to be confused with the Jonathan Demme screwball comedy/thriller by the same name, is a film nurtured in an Actor’s Studio environment and shot as an early American Independent film.
It’s also an unusually frank drama about a teenage girl recovering from sexual assault with a weird dramatic detour. Director Jack Garfein, who adapted the screenplay from the novel “Mary Ann” with author Alex Karmel, presents the ordeal in impressionistic fragments and discomforting close-ups and the aftermath, as she picks herself off and shuffles home, in a long, wordless scene sensitive to the nuances of her experience. More than fifty years later it is still startling and affecting, a simple yet evocative cinematic suggestion of ordeal too terrible to show.
She tells no one about the assault, not her nattering, blithely racist mother (Mildred Dunnock), not her distant stepfather, and as she becomes more alienated from her familiar world she drops her schoolbooks on a bench and runs off into the city. She rents a seedy room, barely bigger than a closet and overstuffed with junky furnishings, and gets a job working the counter of a five-and-dime but continues to wall herself off from all human contact.
Ralph Meeker appears almost an hour into the film as Mike, a gruff but lonely mechanic who stops Mary Ann from killing herself. Shifting from tough guy exclamations and protective instincts, he walks her through the city and invites her to rest in his spartan basement apartment while he works. She registers the click of the lock in the door behind him but doesn’t react, and he is all nervous host as he prepares dinner and shares his scrapbook, but he refuses to let her leave. We lose track of the days. You might expect the film to turn into a captive thriller and for a moment—when Mike arrives home blind drunk and starts grabbing at her—it seems to be so, but the scene takes a startling turn and so does the film. He’s more like a blue collar Lenny (a la Of Mice and Men) than a psychotic loner and the film becomes a character drama about two damaged people unable to articulate or communicate their feelings to others. It’s a little troubling but it is sincere and touching, and it puts the focus on the physical performance: gestures, expressions, body language, the unexpected reaction to situations.
Available on The Criterion Channel for a limited time through March 31, complete with bonus interviews presented on the Criterion special edition disc. Add to watchlist.
Also on a special edition Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion, reviewed on Stream On Demand here.
Something Wild (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Something Wild (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]