To Argentine writer-director Damian Szifron, there's nothing that can bring chaos quite like structure. Wild Tales, his anthology film of six unrelated shorts, is called Relatos Salvages in Spanish – and I like the word “savage” a lot better. Six times we'll see humans transformed into animals. With the heat cranked up on the stove, each of these episodes are played for varying degrees of laughs, and perhaps it's that layer of facetiousness that makes this film so relatable. If you don't see a part of yourself in some of these stories, I suspect you are living in La Denegacion.
As with all anthology films, some chapters are better than others. There are no explicit callbacks between stories, but they by and large stick with the same theme – a rebuke of the aristocracy from both the working and middle class. (Also, lots of driving. But this may just be a coincidence.)
The pre-title opener (“Pasternak”) is really just one Twilight Zone-ish gag. You'll get no specifics from me, but it concludes with a terrific punchline – a big belly laugh that's almost a little bit out of place at the Cannes Film Festival.
The next short, “The Rats,” is merely okay. Wise to get it out of the way. You can't win 'em all. Let's not dwell on it, or even discuss it.
“Road To Hell,” however, is where we get into high gear and Szifron proves himself as a major director of comedy and action. A yuppie jerk is driving along a deserted road in his air conditioned luxury vehicle. A hick in a jalopy isn't moving out of his way. They exchange some vulgarities and Richie Rich speeds ahead. Then, he gets a flat. Who do you think shows up just before the final screw gets tightened?
The machismo escalates on both sides and soon this is a fight to the death. It's a tremendous ping-pong match between these two bullheaded men, both of whom kinda-sorta have our sympathies when their foe elevates things to the next “too far” level. The sequence is outstandingly shot and edited, with locked vehicles offering moments of safety and rest – like kids on a playground shouting “base!” This doesn't last too long, however, as the tables turn once again.
Szifron shoots with short lenses, but not to the point of silliness. It's a remarkable piece of showmanship, almost at Coen Brothers level, that's a little bit frighting but also hilarious. (Now I know what it looks like when someone stands over your windshield and shits on it. Let me grab my pen and my bucket list.)
If “Road To Hell” is all brute muscle, “Bombita,” my personal favorite, is the ticking time bomb of the mind. An engineer (demolitions expert, actually) has to pick up a cake for his daughter's birthday after a long day at work. He returns to his car to find it towed, despite there being no visible warning signs.
“You can either pay and relax or give yourself a heart attack” a wise older man says on line at the motor vehicles office, but our hero just can't handle the indignity and injustice. He tries to fight back against the weight of bureaucracy and, as I'm sure you can guess, it doesn't go well. In short time his marriage falls apart and he loses his job, all because of this one fucking parking ticket.
I sat in the theater and laughed, but inside, really, I was crying. Did I ever tell you about the one time I borrowed someone's car and got it towed after parking it in a clearly legal spot for, literally, two minutes? No, of course not, why would I have? Because I can't tell that story without getting panic attacks and because, more importantly, everyone has a similar story. Wild Tales knows this, so the film exaggerates this privileged nightmare to the most ridiculous level possible. Wild Tales sank into this well of despair so we didn't have to, and we can all rejoice when things get crazy and dark.
Next up is “The Bill,” in which a rich kid accidentally kills someone with his car and comes home crying to Daddy. He and his lawyer devise a plan to have the gardener take the rap for cash (hey, they must have seen Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys, which has the same exact plot!) but things get out of hand when all parties involved – including the police – recognize that if they turn the screws they can all get rich. “The Bill” is a marvelous mini-opera which shows how people in positions of power may have a point when they say that everyone is out to get them. If we're all hustling to make a buck, isn't there an obligation to take advantage of a golden opportunity? Think of the children! “The Bill” soon devolves into a high-stakes boardroom meeting, with lives and futures on the line, but morals and ethics nowhere to be found.
Last up is “'Til Death Do Us Part,” the funniest but least meaningful chapter. It shows, over the course of just a few minutes, how a marriage can go from bliss to destruction – in this case before the cake is even sliced. There are some terrific moments in this – and one of the best images of a DJ, the lowliest of performers – but it feels like the odd man out with the other segments' themes. Wild Tales is co-produced by Pedro Almodovar, and this is the section where you feel that the most. There are some wonderful instances of beautiful, brassy women screaming at each other.
Anthology films are a tough sell. I didn't have Wild Tales on my initial Cannes screening list this year. What the hell do I want to watch a bunch of shorts for? I'm here to watch real movies! But when everyone said it was good (and when Sony Pictures Classics bought it) I went for it. It is, in fact, a pretty terrific experience. It probably wouldn't be the end of the world if you waited for VOD or Blu-ray, though. More importantly, it is a spectacular calling card for director Szifron, whose previous work is predominantly Argentinian TV. This guy is ready to handle any genre you throw at him. Looking forward to see what he does next.