Running a simple Google search on director Damian Szifron shows him credited with Wild Tales, ‘the most successful film in the history of Argentina’. Now, running a simple physical search of people who have actually seen and talking about the movie tells me how unfortunate the Argentine cinematic landscape is in terms of reach. This is a film that deserves to be seen by anyone who has given into their humanness at some point, anyone who relishes subtly dark humour, anyone who loves being in the clutches of cinematic tension so gripping that you cannot turn away. It is an anthology of six tales about humanness, and small actions escalating to gargantuan proportions, each displaying a slightly different emotion.
Wild Tales, or more accurately Relatos Salvajes (original Argentine title) is a set of six tales woven together in no interconnected manner and without intersecting narratives as in Amores Perros or Crash. And yet, it is not plagued by the disease that anthologies are susceptible to: the constant interruption of thought as one story ends and the next begins anew. To achieve this, the director Szifron, in his abandon of flowing narratives and an imposing message, adopts a more brilliant thread to tie his tales together: the overarching feeling of something that binds all of us: human behaviour. Here is a film that is about human society and the poignant unpredictability of real life, without having a targeted message to thrust into your arms. Szifron proves himself capable of many subtleties – in action, dialogue and character – that elevate the dark tales that stand wickedly delicious on their own. All this is executed ever so smoothly and to the point that the audience never feels out of their league or belittled by the all-seeing director. Each tale is reminiscent of various masters of the short-length composition – both in film and literature – who thrive on surprising their audiences out of their wits, ending on bolts from the blue that find our jaws dropped. (It particularly felt reminiscent of Stephen King’s short stories, many of which serve the hunger for the macabre while treating the story as a result of human nature.)
Unpredictability is the one word that defines this odd treasure-chest of tales, and this tone is set from the very start with ‘Pasternak’, the first of the tales. Starting off on a subdue note, a model takes her seat on the plane where she finds herself subject to a co-passenger’s attempt at striking up conversation. As the conversation deepens, it comes up that they have a common associate in a man named Pasternak, a quaint surprise that then snowballs. In ‘The Rats’, a waitress and cook at a midnight diner are met with a solitary customer who might share history with the waitress. Little does he know that he has created enemies unknown to him on the side of the counter you would least want vendetta to be present. ‘Road to Hell’ is a conflict between two men, who seem distinctly different in all external appearance, on a deserted highway. But as the tale progresses, it seems that under the fancy clothes and sports-cars, humans are always the same animals of emotion. ‘Bombita’ tells the tale of a different breed of Travis Bickle – a man fed up with bureaucratic torture and the ‘establishment’ who sees his life crumble around him because of one lousy towing incident. The next and my personal favourite in this collection of equally creative stories is ‘The Deal’, the story of exactly how wrong a night of drinking and driving can go. In an attempt to save his son from the police, a man recruits the help of his lawyer and makes the gardener an offer he cannot refuse. The ensuing negotiations see the bargaining chips shift from one to the other, resulting in a masterpiece of dark humour. The last and longest tale in the anthology is ‘Till Death Do Us Apart’, which opens with high spirits and dancing, starkly different from its predecessors. Ariel and Romina are at their wedding reception, where the presence of a special stranger brings on an unwanted surprise. Taking us through a rollercoaster of human emotions and behaviour, this last one is the right way to end this masterpiece, restoring the faith that even in the darkest of times; it is human to see the light, get up and dance the worries away.
The film is perfectly toned, paced and I found myself wishing for neither more or less from the tales, each one more unpredictable than the last. What Szifron masterfully displays here is our most unpredictable side, the side that defies all the logic and reason that we believe to be integral to our selves: human instinct. We might be inclined to the belief that that person – the one who shot another for a couple of hundred bucks, the one who peed all over the boss’ table and quit, the one who dived into the seas after a dropped pencil – could never be us, and indeed we like to think ourselves different from the ‘fools’ of the world. The crucial thing that skips our minds then is the fact that when faced with a pressing situation, often than not, it is our instinct that takes over. We always do what we think is right at the time; and what we think right at the time may not seem that way to those standing by. That’s because of the ‘at the time’: the time and place and resulting mental state clawing away at everything else to reach at our most human nature. Wild Tales works so well as a satire since it holds up a mirror to each of us, making us revel in the oddities and at the same time realise how close we could be – given the right time and place – to taking someone’s life or destroying all that we have built in a moment’s passion.
The one phrase I would use to describe the direction of the film is ‘deviously elegant’. The direction is seamless and the images that inhabit each tale reflect the tone and setting of that story without being distinct enough to break the cinematic flow. The writing for even the smallest of characters was so evocative that at one point I stopped reading the subtitles and just listened to the Spanish tongue which, along with the equally evocative faces, was enough to follow what was happening. The performances are stellar all around, from the amazingly weary Ricardo Darin in ‘Bombita’ to the hypnotically swinging Erica Rivas in ‘Till Death Do Us Apart’. What we witness here is indeed a collaborative effort, each facet of the film adding something to flesh out the contributions of the others, giving us a rare opus where everything just works. And threading all the little beads together is the insightful theme of human instinct that plays itself out in six wickedly delicious scenarios, each more wild than the last.