Argentina’s “Wild Tales” is a blistering six-shooter of verve and savagery; in 122 minutes, writer and director Damian Szifron packs in some of the most original portrayals of unforgiving black comedy I’ve ever seen in a movie. Relentless, diverse, and incredibly provocative at times, “Wild Tales” is a crafty six-part anthology picture that weaves in the anarchic spirit of Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” but doubles the number of short stories, connecting them only by theme and technique rather than through narrative overlay. Tapping into the machinations of various classes, moods, emotions, Szifron tools a coherent assemblage of gut-punching, morally askew comedy complete with potent political jabs and ravenous examinations of human nature suspended in the moment when the last straw finally breaks the camel’s back.
Rather than looking to come full circle much like Tarantino’s opus – which coincidentally celebrated its 20th Anniversary at last year’s Cannes Film Festival where “Wild Tales” first premiered – “Wild Tales” diagrams a parabolic structure: The first and the final ‘tales’ (or tails, if you will) are the most investing, but that’s not to disregard the brilliance of the middle four shorts, nor is it because the bookending pieces are at all similar. The first story operates as an entry point into Szifron’s style and sense of humor; “Pasternak” is one giant gag, perfectly strung out from pitch to close and concluding on a jaw-dropping punch line that is interrupted, purposefully and precisely, by the opening title card. “Hasta que la muerte nos separe,” meanwhile, pulls the entire film to a justly fitting completion, operating as a shattering piece of mastery on its own, yet it feels aptly set up by the insanity of the five chapters that precede it. However, nothing of what takes place between “Pasternak” and “Hasta que la muerte nos separe” – the other stories being titled, “Las Ratas,” “El más fuerte,” “Bombita,” and “La Propuesta” – will prepare you for the final story’s primal honesty.
I’ll leave the excellence of “Pasternak” to eager viewers, but it’s a cruel intentioned joke that Szifron sustains for close to ten minutes. I look forward to revisiting the film with the knowledge of how the first segment proceeds to see if the lack of surprise hinders it’s impact. I sincerely doubt it will. The second entry, “Las Ratas,” is a two-hander between a timid waitress and a spiteful cook who concoct a potentially murderous plot to get back at one of their customers who is a notorious gangster responsible for the death of some of the waitress’ immediate family. “El más fuerte” is basically a live action “Looney Toon” with a hedonistic speed demon and a prickly local stepping in for Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner; this one gets points again for its sustainability as it continually suggests how endless human hatred can be when totally unnecessary violence is inflicted and how it must be reciprocated by the affected party. “Bombita” – which stars Argentine superstar Ricardo Darín – follows a city demolition expert who comes to believe he’s being personally victimized by a local tow truck company. “La Propuesta” is a grueling and highly conscious socioeconomic bottle-segment about a 1% couple who’s delinquent son drunkenly kills a pregnant woman and her unborn child in a hit-and-run and are forced into a series of shady deals with attorneys and fall guys. “Hasta que la muerte nos separe” is a literal wedding from hell: A just-married bride discovers her new husband has not only been adulterous but has actually invited his mistress to the wedding. What ensues is the perfect definition of horror comedy in that laughs were the only salvation for my perpetually dropped jaw.
You’ve got to hand it to Szifron for his pervasive fearlessness. After the audacious first segment, it lays out its parameters pretty clearly: There are none. Anything can happen. He never lets the humor get a shade lighter than pitch black, using every setting and micro-narrative build to make a hard-hitting statement about the human condition. These six short films all involve various crimes of passion, whether the violence be incited by violence, or by a message, a realization, an identification, or a culmination of everything else in the individual’s life. It’s about that moment when things come crashing down (sometimes literally), when the breaking point is passed, when snapping is the last, maybe even best, option. No story has a definitive winner, or a personified justification for losing control, but there are terrifically ironic conclusions to a number of them, which supports Szifron’s affinity to undermine and examine – the most ironic conclusions most times are actually the bafflingly believable ones.
Szifron also makes a strong case for his versatility as the writer and director of six very unique stories. “Pasternak” is exceptionally told, staggeringly handled at times, and, again, the last shot is a bold marvel in and of itself. Unforgettable is the appropriate word for this mean-spirited joke’s climax. The boldest in terms of political statements has to come in the very Coens-y “La Propuesta” using a despicable accident, an instance of heinous, revolting manslaughter, and projecting it as the backdrop to illustrate the maneuverings of the elite. As the have-nots lie in the street dying or taking absurd propositions by their well-off neighbors to keep the life of their no-good son away from the spiteful limelight, it pointedly carves out the disgusting capabilities of those with economic power. What begins mainly as a hefty, but understandable expense to save their reckless son matures into a ridiculous fortune, which leads to new deals and doubling back on the amount of money that is being divided up so that someone innocent will amiably accept a prison sentence and a specialized lawyer can get his cut for blackmail, a district attorney can look the other way, and a good-for-nothing killer can cry his way to freedom. The punch line to this story is wicked as well – so much so I literally forgot to laugh. I was just so stunned. There’s a lot of Joel and Ethan here, specifically in that punch line, which makes an editing choice that rang heavy of a “Fargo” inspiration. “La Propuesta” is a small socially conscious masterpiece, but what it leads to is truly the icing on the cake.
“Hasta que la muerte nos separe” – translated to “Till Death Do Us Part” – is blissfully, spectacularly savage. There’s no more apt adjective, it’s savage in terms of plotting and in terms of humor. There’s revenge sex, there’s spilt blood, there’s more sex, there’s purposefully vomit-inducing camera movements, and then there’s the curtain call that puts a simultaneously eye-widening and smirk- inducing close on the whole two-hour affair. What a Part Two to this single story would hold only terrifies me; there’s “Gone Girl” level horror to surely ensue between these trainwreck newlyweds, but Szifron ties the satire together with a stinging final shot. It’s such a perfectly uncontrolled frame. No other story could have brought Szifron’s anthology to a better close than this one.
This searing Argentine import dares to go to comedic lengths usually reserved for auteurs like Tarantino and the Coens, formidable filmmakers who Szifron is undoubtedly emulating but hardly looking to rival. As much inspiration may be identifiable within Szifron’s style and sense of humor, he stands notably apart, providing a new international voice that I hope will continue to chime in regularly. “Wild Tales” understandably lost the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award” to the picturesque “Ida” and probably wouldn’t have usurped “Leviathan” in an “Ida”-less year, but I’m hoping that the Academy recognition will put it in the hunt for aggressive searchers of specialty cinema. This is a ruthlessly funny, craftily original film that successfully spotlights the regretless levels of sinfulness that human beings can resort to in passionate instances. You’ll learn a lot about yourself based on how much you laugh during “Wild Tales,” and you’d probably be better off leaving your sensitivity at the door.
Review by Mike Murphy