Alibi V.24 No.13 • March 26-April 1, 2015 

Film Review

Wild Tales

Energetic Argentine anthology believes revenge is a dish best served on fire

“Who wants cake?”
“Who wants cake?”

Wild Tales

Directed by Damián Szifrón

Cast: Darío Grandinetti, María Marull, Mónica Villa

Buried in a shallow grave somewhere in the dark space between the violent vignettes of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and the twisty short stories of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” lie the blackly comic chapters of Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales. This Spanish-language comedy/drama/thriller is easily one of my favorite films of the year so far. But I’ve got a sick sense of humor, so take that for what it’s worth.

Szifrón’s Academy Award-nominated anthology winds its way through six stand-alone stories about revenge and reprisal. Each segment of the film is a perfectly encapsulated burst of bloody brilliance. Before the opening credits even roll, we’ve gotten our first taste of what’s to come. A leggy model and a middle-aged music critic sitting across from one another on an airplane strike up a mildly flirtatious conversation. Coincidentally, they realize they have something in common: Her ex-boyfriend once had his college thesis judged by the critic. An overheard conversation or two later and more passengers on the plane start recalling a connection to the young man in question. What’s going on here? In just a few brief minutes, Szifrón answers the question, providing a deliciously dark punch line to this judiciously constructed joke. From there, Wild Tales is off and running.

We get a sketch about a waitress recognizing the gangster who destroyed her family. We get a tale of road rage gone horribly, hilariously wrong. An explosives expert plots revenge against a tow truck company. A rich man tries desperately to keep his son out of prison. A bride discovers her husband-to-be’s infidelity at a most inopportune moment. Though the tales have little in common, each seems to hit the same beats of darkness, humor and surprise. In a broad sense, Szifrón (a well-known television writer in his native Argentina) is skewering modern society. I’ve never been to Argentina myself, and there’s little doubt the writer-director is exaggerating wildly for comedic and dramatic effect. But here, the South American nation is satirized as a short-tempered place filled with deranged madmen and women torn apart by class and gender biases. Obviously, you can take out the name “Argentina” and substitute just about any other country in the world with remarkably similar results.

Wild Tales doesn’t exactly provide a sunny-side-up view of humanity. But the film never feels cynical or bleak. Instead, it draws energy and warmth from its winking, “What can ya do about it?” savagery. Aside from its morbid sense of humor, the element that makes Wild Tales such a consistently entertaining romp is the gorgeous way in which it’s shot. The razor-sharp script is paired with a beautifully crisp mise-en-scène that recalls Pedro Almodóvar at his most straight-faced. (No small wonder, then, to find the Spanish auteur and his brother listed as two of the film’s producers.) From a hilarious freeze frame in one tale to some gritty film noir cinematography in another, Szifrón demonstrates a total mastery over his tone. The production values are high, with impeccable camera work, perfectly timed editing, unexpected stunts and expensive special effects.

Like all anthology films, some segments rate higher than others. Each viewer will happily choose their own “favorite.” But the truth is there isn’t a clinker in this lot. Each of these wild tales delivers its own hefty dose of humor, shocks and, above all, catharsis. Each of the main characters—out of proportion as their reactions might be—is raging against the person, system or institution that done them wrong. Who among us hasn’t entertained that most destructive of fantasies about riding a nuclear bomb, hooting and hollering, into our most hated enemy’s stupid face? Self-destructive or not, that’s good catharsis.

Szifrón wisely ends on his highest note—that inevitably ugly confrontation between bride and groom. He leaves us, of course, with plenty of blood. At that point in the film, it’s to be expected. But it’s the strangely tender, unexpectedly touching period at the end of the sentence that will stick with viewers as they exit the theater. It shows what an expert this filmmaker is at navigating the whiplash twists that real human emotion often demands of us. After all, what’s love without a little pain? What’s life without a few explosives? What’s a pleasant drive in the countryside without a gasoline-and-tire-iron-fuelled fight to the death?