If Ray Liotta’s Her Ex, Get Out of Dodge

If Ray Liotta’s Her Ex, Get Out of Dodge June 20, 2022

Ray Liotta at Cannes in 2012. Cool as ever.
Source: Wikimedia.

It’s a little late to eulogize Ray Liotta. He died three weeks ago.  And yet I couldn’t help myself but to turn on Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986), not the film in which I first encountered Liotta, but the one in which he first really struck me. I caught the movie for the first time in a college cinema class, where I recall feeling blindsided by the work’s subtle transition from screwball comedy to thriller. Somehow it was both. It worked. That ain’t easy. And so, upon a re-watch, I got to thinking about why.

The answer is Ray Liotta. His piercing eyes, shadowed as if always by thick, witchy eyeliner, his rugged Jersey accent, and his menacing amicability set him up as a mess of contradictions and an immediate focal point. And yet he doesn’t show up till over an hour in. It’s also when reckless good fun gives way to violent malice. But if you look closely, the set-up is there from the beginning. The movie is terrifying from the jump; it’s just that sometimes the unknown is exciting, a headlong rush into the great who-gives-a-damn. Other times it’s a murderous ex.

Charlie (Jeff Daniels), a yuppie businessman who just got a promotion, runs out on a check at a New York City diner. Audrey, AKA Lulu (Melanie Griffith), who sports a black bob and wears a gigantic Africa chain, notices and grabs a hold of him outside. At first, Charlie thinks the jig is up. But Lulu clarifies: she knows he’s got the money and that he’s avoided paying for fun. She admires this rebellious streak and offers him a ride back to his office. He will never return to work, not for the rest of the movie anyway.

Within minutes Lulu is drinking and driving, throwing away Charlie’s beeper, and handcuffing him to a bed in dingy New Jersey motel. All the time David Byrne’s wacky soundtrack plays and we laugh; it’s all very funny, especially Daniels’ face as he slowly realizes he’s been kidnapped for his own benefit. But deep down, there’s a real terror here—even for the audience. In the scene where Lulu cuffs him to the bed, I spent most of it thinking he was about to be robbed à la George from Seinfeld. If this woman is wild enough to snatch him out of a Manhattan greasy spoon, why not leave the exec stranded in Nowhere, NJ? You could even give the whole thing a Robin Hood angle—steal from the rich and give to the bob’d.

Then there’s the scene where they get to Pennsylvania and Charlie’s told to begin calling Lulu “Audrey.” Why? He’s about to be introduced (with no warning) to her mother—as her husband. Daniels’ character takes this well enough. This whole adventure is an exercise in roleplaying after all. But he’s still got a wife and kids at home; he’s maybe going to lose his job, and he still has no idea what this woman wants. The mother’s stern warnings about her daughter don’t help. It’s like right beneath the comedy there’s a big pool of cold water, populated with a single, toothy shark labelled ‘LULU, OR AUDREY, OR WHATEVER.”

That’s the film’s real misdirection—the danger isn’t Audrey. It’s her past. It’s Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta), her ex-husband, who ambles, fresh out of prison, into her high school reunion, where she’s taken a, by now gleefully bubbly and liberated, Charlie. At first, the scene seems like many others in the movie—unnerving but weighted toward comedy. The Daniels’ character runs into a guy from his office, which threatens to collapse the wall he’s spent half the movie propping up, keeping this suburban adventure separate from the world of cufflinked Yuppiedom. A black-haired classmate of Audrey’s, Irene (Margaret Colin) hits on him at the open bar, calling into question his sense of freedom and his budding romance—another misdirection (she’ll end up screwed by the Liotta character too).

Like Arnold Friend, Ray Sinclair barely needs to say a word. His presence terrifies and attracts. Charlie doesn’t get the danger he’s in; we do as we see Lulu become increasingly uncomfortable. All the while, Liotta’s delivery slashes away at the unsuspecting usurper. Nearly every line ends with “Charlie,” invoking a false familiarity that draws the Daniels’ character in, even as, with Audrey squirming, we can see it functions more like some necromantic spell, an incantatory preparation for some ritual bloodbath. And the ritual bloodbath does come not too long after.

By that point, of course, we’re well beyond comedy. For that, we can thank Ray Liotta. His presence elevates the movie, or, perhaps better put, balances it. A zany romantic comedy becomes something else, all because he can make a character work.

We have a lot to thank him for. May he rest in peace.

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