The ‘anthology’ is a narrative structure that is rarely used in contemporary cinema. When it does appear, it tends to be in fun, but frivolous horror movies such as VHS (2012) and The ABCs of Death (2012). To see it appearing in a film shown in competition at Cannes last year, where it received enormous critical success, is fairly surprising. What is even more surprising is that none of the stories in Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales exude the kind of contemplative, measured aesthetic that tends to win success at the festival. Wild Tales tells six frenzied tales linked by themes of betrayal, vengeance, retribution, and murder; each covered with a layer of pitch-black humour that complements the satirical edge lurking just beneath the surface. The narratives are more akin to the twists and turns of Road Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected or Alfred Hitchcock Presents than the drowsy portentousness of ‘anthology’ art-house films such as Iñárritu‘s 21 Grams (2003) or Babel (2006) . During the best tales, the film feels like a giddy re-invigoration of the anthology structure. Unfortunately, these highs are beset by several stories that lack the wit, inventiveness, and meticulous storytelling of the other segments.
Wild Tales tells six frenzied tales linked by themes of betrayal, vengeance, retribution, and murder
The opening sets the tone for the film with a pre-credits prologue called ‘Pasternak’, a deliciously brief slice of macabre concerning airline passengers who find that they are all connected in some way to a figure from their collective past. The dark comedy and narrative efficiency of Pasternak pulses through the veins of the film’s first half, as the stories go from strength to strength. Szifron describes the film as being about the “pleasure of losing control”, and this is reflected in his directorial style. The long takes and compositional emphasis of typical art-house fare are eschewed in favour of a roving, restless camera and a frenetic editing style that reflects the mind-set of the lead characters as their mostly middle-class restraint is pushed to its absolute limit, and then sent into freefall.
The prologue is followed by Las Ratas (The Rats) in which a waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) at a late-night diner is forced to serve a black-hearted loan shark who tore apart her family. The show here is firmly stolen by Rita Cortese who plays the hardened cook urging the waitress to take murderous revenge. Cortese’s deadpan scheming is the highlight of the segment, and she might have the best line in the whole film: “if rat poison is expired, does this mean it is more or less deadly?” The fact that the loan-shark is running for mayor adds a satirical edge to the tale that is more explicitly elaborated in the film’s fourth story, Bombita (Little Bomber), which stars a wonderfully browbeaten Ricardo Darín. Darín plays demolition expert Simon Fischer, whose revenge against a ubiquitous, and ubiquitously unscrupulous towing company turns him into a social-media hero. The tale is a wonderfully absurd examination of the bureaucracy, inertia, and corruption of civil government; it is Wild Tales at its best, the pacing so exquisitely realised that his gradual unravelling is both plausible, yet absurd; hilarious, yet totally involving.
There is plenty of fun to be had in Wild Tales; unfortunately that fun tapers out in the last 50 minutes
It is a shame that this sharp, immensely satisfying story structure is let down in the film’s final third. The last two stories, La Propuesta (The Proposal), followed by Hasta que la Muerte nos Separe (Until Death do us Part), are more plodding affairs whose edges are blunted by longer running times, an over-emphasis on dialogue, and surprisingly predictable endings. La Propuesta involves the rich father (Oscar Martinez) of a young layabout who commits a hit-and-run, and the deal that he makes to conceal his son’s crime, while Hasta […] tells the tale of a bride (Érica Rivas) who discovers her husband’s infidelity on the night of their wedding. It is a shame that these two stories, lacking the ingenuity and vitality of the first four, close the film, especially as the ending of Hasta […] is the movie’s low point – a clichéd, lazy resolution that ends proceedings on a bum note. There is plenty of fun to be had in Wild Tales; unfortunately that fun tapers out in the last 50 minutes. Regardless, the nuanced humour, ingenious satire, and gleeful chaos of the first four tales are worth the price of admission alone.