Overview: Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at last weekend’s Oscars, Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes) is comprised of 6 stories of varying length and complexity, dealing with revenge and excess, centering upon humans who act on their dark, violent, absurd urges when pushed just beyond the limit. Argentina, 2014 (US 2015). 122 minutes. Sony Pictures Classics.
Sin and Surrealism: The stage is set for a darkly comic thrill ride from the very first story: a short and simple but deeply satisfying opening in which a group of passengers on a plane find that they’ve all been brought together for a very specific, sinister reason. The whole thing is comedic, but the freeze frame that concludes it right before the opening credits is particularly outrageous and hilarious. I’d even venture to say it’s an example of dark-comic genius, especially in the buildup toward that final moment, utilizing irony and timing to extremely successful ends. And then the credits themselves are displayed over still photography of wild animals. It is a fitting and funny way of telling us this film will be a sort-of satire, and it will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, at least not from Hollywood. We humans are, ultimately, animals, especially in Szifron’s only-slightly surreal conception of society.
A Sick Sense of… Style: The humor is not the only thing that is gleefully sick about these wild tales, although it certainly does take a refreshingly devilish approach to comedy. I also loved everything about it from a stylistic standpoint; from upward shots from car trunks and through transparent ATM touchscreen keypads, to a moving camera seemingly attached to a swinging door, this film has bark as well as bite.
And Satire: Some stories were more successfully satirical than others, and it made me wonder to what extend satire was actually the goal. One story is about a cafe waitress who serves the crook who caused her father to kill himself. Whether he gets his just desserts would not merely be a spoiler. It is, in fact, a moral conundrum presented as a flippant joke; we see such a short snippet of the aftermath of our characters’ bad behavior before skipping to the next story that we’re left to wonder if the aftermath really matters. In some segments, such as this one or the preposterous one about two drivers in a tit-for-tat road war, revenge is the whole story. In others, it’s a fleeting moment that closes the segment, such as in the story about a hit and run, whose moment of revenge serves as a jarring punctuation mark, the events preceding it exploring corruption and deceit instead. In yet another, the implications of revenge are actually shown– in a ridiculous denouement featuring a civilian-turned-social-media-hero who quite literally blows the stupidity of society wide open.
Then there’s the wedding segment, which defies any semblance of the structure and predictability toward which the previous five segments at least edged. The wedding’s conflict is between the cheating, lying new hubby and the psychotic, conniving new wife, but the sympathies are ever-fluctuating; we mostly remain shocked at their actions, not knowing what to make of them (because, of course, our frame of reference is grounded in reality, and nothing much about this segment is realistic in the slightest). The film is constantly working to distract us from really sympathizing with either of them anyway — not because of any profound reason other than the fact that, again, it doesn’t really matter — and through all the crazy events packed into this final chapter, we find that it doesn’t matter to the characters either, which just emphasizes the absurd humor of it all.
So what does any of this really mean? The common thread is that we, as humans, are capable of crazy things when our barriers are broken through or, in the case of this film, when they are flimsy or non-existent. There’s a reason this film has been called “apocalyptic.” If we acted on our anger, our lust, our greed, and most of all, our desires for vengeance, the world would deteriorate into disorder and violence, and this is the world of Wild Tales. What this film shows us, however, is that as long as this world is a fantasy, then it’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s actually really satisfying. Rather than cautionary tales, these are wild tales. We can take from them what we may once the compilation has reached its conclusion, but in the process we’ll certainly laugh, gasp, and gawk, and maybe question our own wild tendencies, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that reaction is optional.