By Benjamín Harguindey
It’s hard to define the genre to which Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes) belongs, but it’s probably something along the lines of dark satire. Writer/director Damián Szifron gathers an ensemble cast of A-listers and allots them an episode each, totaling six in all. While there’s no narrative connection between each episode, they share an overarching theme: control, or lack thereof.
The stories see their protagonists attempting to maintain their cool in dire situations based on present day Argentine urban folklore, like carrying through a vendetta, dealing with government employees or trying to cover up a crime. The script sees them all the way through up to the final consequences of their actions, which may result in comedy or tragedy, but are always underlined by a good measure of black humor.
“Pasternak”, set almost exclusively aboard an airplane, is the shortest story in the movie, wrapping up before the title credits even roll. It’s also peculiar in that it’s the only story that doesn’t follow a character’s struggle for control, but rather those that suffer because of it (amongst whom we find a pedantic critic played by Darío Grandinetti). While it does efficiently set the running theme of the movie, it’s too lighthearted and feels less like a story and more like a gag, playing in sharp contrast with the more socially poignant stories.
“The Rats” follows the themes of amazing coincidences and struggle for self-control, this time inside a dead-end diner on one of those dark and stormy nights, where a waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) recognizes her childhood nemesis waiting to order. The waitress confides on her cook friend (Rita Cortese), who goads her into taking retribution and poisoning the man’s food. While there’s some humor to be found in their characters’ interactions – particularly Cortese as the politically blunt half of the duo – this is one of the darker stories in the movie.
“Road to Hell” follows one Diego (Leonardo Sbaraglia) as he speeds across the Salta desert and becomes engaged in an unnerving case of road rage with a stranger. He gets a flat tire at the worst possible moment, stranding him in the middle of nowhere and dooming him to a violent confrontation with the offended driver in any second. The situation quickly escalates into an action-packed battle, underlined by some gallows humor at the end.
“Bombita” is arguably the most fun (and upbeat) story in the movie. It follows an engineer (Ricardo Darín) in downtown Buenos Aires whose car gets repeatedly towed away for all the wrong reasons, and his ensuing clashes with the bureaucracy behind it. Meanwhile, his maddened crusade for dignity costs him his reputation, his job and his family. The story combines the comedic staples of torturing a character with Murphy’s Law and derailing him in ways the audience finds cathartic.
“The Deal” moves the action to the fancy part of Buenos Aires, where a rich couple (played by Oscar Martínez and María Onetto) desperately tries to cover up their teenage son’s fatal hit and run, and in doing so form a conspiracy that keeps adding more and more people to the payroll. This is the more suspenseful and tightly written of the stories, and follows the preceding short in its social critique.
“Till Death Do Us Part” takes place at a Jewish wedding party in which the bride (played by Érica Rivas) finds out the groom has been having an affair with one of their guests. Mayhem ensues as the bride decides to have her revenge as swiftly and clumsily as possible, bringing the party down several circles of scandal and embarrassment. It’s probably the most loosely written episode in the movie, and goes on for just a little too long.
Wild Tales essentially introduces slice of life that is instantly recognizable to the viewer and offers the escapist pleasure of developing “what if” scenarios to their full extent. The anthological format introduces underdeveloped characters whom we identify with simply because they’re on the brink of action, yet take pleasure in the sadistic turns of the plot, which never offers an easy way out of any situation.
And while these are all excellently written and acted, there’s a nagging inconsistency when it comes to tone. The absurdity of the initial story never quite pays off, and some episodes aren’t quite as tightly written or fleshed out as others. But stepping back, the big picture is that of a rather unique piece of filmmaking that manages to be engaging, entertaining and relevant on more than a few counts.