“What’s happened has happened, mother.”
Though his IMDb credits are minimal, Jack Garfein was one of the most influential and respected artists of his era. He was one of the key participants in the creation of the Actors Studio, and his life is filled with collaborations with better-known individuals: he worked alongside Elia Kazan, taught Sissy Spacek, discovered Steve McQueen, cast James Dean in his first play, etc. A genuine jack-of-all-trades who worked in multiple mediums, he only directed two movies: The Strange One and Something Wild, independent films which tackled hot-button subjects and generated considerable controversy due to their frankness.
Something Wild (no relation to the excellent Jonathan Demme film, which has also been released by Criterion) – an adaptation of Alex Karmel’s novel Mary Ann – casts Carroll Baker (Garfein’s wife at the time) as Mary Ann Robinson, a young woman attending college in New York City. One day, while walking home through a park in the Bronx, Mary Ann is raped by a stranger. Thoroughly traumatized by the experience, she chooses not to tell her mother (Mildred Dunnock, Death of a Salesman) about what happened and tries to pretend that everything is normal. Her efforts fail, and after a series of attempts to shake her life up in some positive way (moving into a new apartment, getting a new job), she decides to commit suicide.
Here we meet a mechanic named Mike (Ralph Meeker, Kiss Me Deadly), who witnesses Mary Ann standing on the Manhattan Bridge and grabs her before she can jump to her death. Mike insists on having Mary Ann come to his apartment to rest for a while, so he can be sure that she won’t try anything like that again. He promises that he’ll be at work for the day, so she won’t have to worry about him bothering her. She reluctantly agrees, and gets some rest. Alas, she soon discovers that Mike is planning to hold her captive.
The film is exceptionally nuanced in the way it deals with the psychological trauma of abuse, always finding ways to show rather than tell and featuring lengthy, dialogue-free passages in which Baker conveys a multitude of tormented feelings through nothing more than body language. It’s a significant film in that it represents – as Criterion’s packaging suggests – “one of the purest on-screen expressions of the sensibility of the intimate community of artists around New York’s Actors Studio,” but it also feels like an inspiration point for a host of other works (its influence can be felt in films ranging from Pedro Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! to Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane).
While the first half is a relatively straightforward examination of a woman’s struggle to cope with personal trauma, the second half – which more or less unfolds within the confines of Mike’s apartment – goes into considerably bolder, more thematically dangerous territory. We shift into gripping yet profoundly depressing tale of a woman slowly transforming into a self-deluded abuse victim (a remarkably creepy dream sequence featured midway through this section makes a rather violent stylistic departure from the rest of the movie), as her captor’s lies begin to take root in her mind. Mike tells Mary Ann that she should be grateful to be trapped in his home: after all, if it wasn’t for him, she would be dead. A lie, repeated often enough, can begin to feel like truth. Why does this movie feel so relevant, anyway?
Something Wild (Blu-ray) Criterion offers an impressive 1080p/1.67:1 transfer, boasting a crisp, clean image with previous few scratches, flecks or other bits of damage. Black levels are impressive, a moderate amount of natural grain is present and the image has impressive consistency considering its age. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is solid, too, giving Aaron Copland’s excellent score a clean, full mix and presenting the dialogue with clarity. Supplements include interviews with Garfein (27 minutes), Carroll Baker (15 minutes), film scholar Foster Hirsch (21 minutes), 40 minutes of footage from one of Garfein’s acting classes and a booklet featuring an essay by Sheila O’Malley.
Something Wild takes a little patience – it’s experimental to the point of self-indulgence on occasion – but is ultimately an impressively ambitious, creative, gripping movie that tackles difficult themes with admirable complexity.