Comedies, like Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect from critics. For a comedy to win awards, it has to blend itself with cynicism, deep messages, and a touch of class to stand a chance against Oscar bait. Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes) does all this, but impressively is never too cumbersome or pessimistic. Few recent films match its humor, irony, and relevance to contemporary life. One can choose to focus on the movie’s messages on the futility of vengeance and life’s uncanny ability to drive anyone mad with righteous indignation, or one can just laugh at cars being blown up and people killing each other.
An anthology of six short films unrelated by plot yet related by their themes, Argentina’s Wild Tales is the work of ingenious and inventive director Damián Szifron, who previously directed the highly acclaimed Argentine TV shows Los Simuladores and Hermanos y Detectives. The opening credits pair names of cast and crew with images of animals, emphasizing the unforgiving predator and prey relationships ubiquitous in the film. It’s telling that Szifron juxtaposes his name with a picture of a fox, as Szifron’s writing and cinematography are at a level few directors can surpass. He enjoys employing close-up shots that seem to trap characters and force us to focus on their faces, giving us the same sense of despair and struggle that envelops the characters and drives most of the plots. We get up close and personal with the characters, and often feel we are sitting right next to them as they suffer.
We begin the film on a plane, in which all the passengers discover that they once knew a fellow named Gabriel Pasternak. All of them have bad blood with Pasternak. And it turns out that Pasternak is piloting the plane. Right away, the film accelerates from mundanity to insanity, and keeps up the frenzied storytelling. A waitress encounters the man who ruined her family, and has the opportunity to kill him. Two men driving on a lonely road exchange insults that gradually escalate into murder. The fourth story goes in a more subtle but no less raucous direction, featuring a man who gets pushed to the edge by parking fines. In a luscious display of irony, he mends his relationship with his wife and daughter by losing his job and committing a crime.
The fifth segment is the weakest of the entire collection, but that’s not saying much, because it still manages to be enthralling. A boy tries to get his wealthy parents to protect him from the police and media after he runs over and kills a pregnant woman and her unborn child. The family’s poor groundskeeper agrees to be the fall guy, but soon the prosecutor wants in on the deal, and the desire to “do the right thing” is unceremoniously vanquished by squabbles over who gets paid the most hush money for bamboozling the public. The subject matter and plot lack the sarcasm of the other segments, and could be shorter without any significant compromises. However, it’s still engaging to observe vice in action.
For the movie’s sixth and final act, Szifron outdoes himself with the manipulations, twists, and zingers by transporting us to a wedding sitting under a mountain of neuroses. Bride Romina figures out that Ariel the groom has been having an affair with one of the guests, prompting her to storm out and have a fling of her own. There are tirades, fights, and a messy reconciliation both disturbing and touching. As the longest film in the film, this story tests viewers’ patience with layer after layer of plot twists that seem to never end. Its ending is immensely satisfying, but the film does drag on somewhat and feels a bit too big to digest compared to its predecessors.
Savagery is rife within the animal kingdom, and both the hunter and hunted have an infinite capacity for expressing it, as the film repeatedly demonstrates. The soundtrack by Gustavo Santaolalla is spare yet stimulating, with strong influences from westerns that amplify the craziness of the overall film. One delightfully hilarious tendency of the soundtrack is to wryly contradict the actual mood of certain scenes. A slow and sappy love song plays while two men beat each other to death before being blown up in a car. As a man waits for his car bomb to explode, happy pop music flows. A woman learns that her husband was unfaithful to her as they dance to the Blue Danube waltz. Wild Tales is never shy about exhibiting bizarre behavior and slapstick violence that would induce jealousy in Quentin Tarantino. A self-aware zaniness permeates the plots, which appear impossible yet are always realistic enough that the audience can painfully relate.
“Life isn’t fair” is a truism that anyone who has ever lived would not dare to dispute. Whether revenge is ever justified or wise, whoever, is an idea that can be endlessly debated. The film’s answer seems to be: sometimes. It’s difficult to say for sure, since Szifron has a gift for telling its stories from multiple perspectives, and we end up understanding and sympathizing with totally opposing sides simultaneously. No one is completely wrong and no one is completely right; even many of the jerks in this movie have odd charm in them. Corruption, inefficiency, and injustice have long plagued Argentine society, but audiences in any country can immediately sympathize with the trials and tribulations depicted onscreen. Who hasn’t felt like committing murder after being talked down to and forced to pay money to smug bureaucrats? Who hasn’t sworn at a bad driver? Who hasn’t dreamed of murdering a bully or striking back at one’s ex-girlfriend or former boss?
It’s dangerously easy nowadays to dismiss all comedies as pointless escapism, but Wild Tales counters all of this with wicked glee and sharp-eyed social commentary. Thoroughly unpredictable, hilariously violent, and blessed with intelligent black humor, Wild Tales sucker punches movie fans who live under the popular delusions that all foreign film possesses the somberness of Ingmar Bergman, or that funny movies can’t also make great points about the hardships and tragedies of life. It resembles Bicycle Thieves with more mirth and action. Revenge, apparently, can be served hot and bloody instead of simply cold, and it can still taste amazing.