Vengeance, violence, and the flames of passion: these are the order of the day in Wild Tales. Damián Szifron’s rambunctious collection of shorts links six stories through the assertion that the vengeful capabilities lying just under the surface of the common man could at any time boil over, and bring an end to orderly civilisation as we know it. The Argentinian Oscar-nominee premiered to a rapturous response at last year’s Cannes festival (with some sources alleging a ten minute standing ovation) but is only now opening to audiences around the UK. Good news, then – it was worth the wait.
The film is never truer to its mission statement than in the fourth segment, arguably the centrepiece. In it, a demolitions expert (played to perfection by Ricardo Darín) is being worn down to a nub by his circumstances. Experiencing difficulties at home and at work, it’s more than he can take when he finds his car being repeatedly towed by a corrupt corporation for supposed parking infractions. Herein lies the genius of the film – each segment sets up its characters in mundane situations which are utterly recognisable, from the car-towing to a serious bout of road rage, to an immaculately planned wedding reception which goes horribly awry. Wild Tales examines ordinarily-functioning members of society who are just a stone’s throw from total breakdown, and it’s the familiarity of these premises which give the film its universal appeal.
The meltdowns which follow are invariably a joy to behold, and to give away more plot details would be to spoil the glee with which we voraciously watch events unfold. Safe to say, though, that Szifron must be singled out for particular praise – he is the sole writing and directing credit for each of the six episodes, which is surely crucial to the stylistic and thematic cohesion that the film enjoys (an issue on which other anthologies, often with a different helmer for each story, stumble).
Szifron’s vivid imagination is on display throughout as he plays around with an assortment of genres (segments lean variously towards thriller, horror, melodrama) and structures (the first story is just a few minutes long, a flawless distillation of an idea, while others opt for a slow burn – or indeed a rapid, fiery, ultraviolent escalation) and through it all he never loses sight of the central examination of humanity’s potential to revert to its baser instincts. Composer Gustavo Santaolalla and cinematographer Javier Juliá also contribute to the film’s impeccable craftsmanship, and each dramatic set-piece (there are several which will leave you stunned) is beautifully shot and realised – on a technical level, the film leaves nothing to be desired.
That’s not to say that Wild Tales is faultless, however – maintaining the energy crucial to this premise for the full two-hour runtime proves a difficult task, on top of which there’s something inherently exhausting about restarting and committing yourself to six separate storylines. By the fourth or fifth segment, I was beginning to struggle to fully invest myself in the new scenarios, and it felt as though the film had lost a little of the first half’s giddy irreverence and fervent potency. I hesitate to place the blame with Szifron’s execution so much as the inherently problematic structure, and suspect that the film would have benefitted from having either fewer stories (one supposes there’s a reason 3 is something of a magic number for anthologies) or more narrative/character through-lines, if only to provide something to hold onto when going from one story to the next.
That said, Wild Tales at its worst still has a great deal to offer, and when firing on all cylinders (as it frequently is) the film is euphorically anarchic. Szifron’s directorial voice is a fascinating combination of Luis Buñuel’s satirical bite and keen sense of the line between absurdity and the banal, and Pedro Almodóvar (who, one is not surprised to discover, has a co-producing credit on this film): here, Szifron emulates Almodóvar’s ability to put his characters through the emotional ringer in colourful and sadistic ways whilst always treating them with the utmost affection and respect.
The result is a film which knows exactly when to pull the trigger, and send everything snowballing into uncontrollable violence. Wild Tales invites us to journey with its characters into oblivion, and how can we decline when the ride is this much fun?