When the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film was announced last weekend I was secretly hoping Wild Tales would win. Not because it’s a great movie, or even the best out of all the nominees, but because it was dark and silly and twisted in a way the category rarely sees. Plus it’s a dreaded anthology, which nobody wants to make anymore because they’re so friggin’ tough. Just ask the folks behind the awful V/H/S horror franchise. While the film has all of the inconsistencies apparently native to the genre, what it has is a surly attitude, a scathing wit, and a fresh directing voice in Damian Szifron.
Produced by Pedro Almodovar, and gifted with his sardonic sense of humor, Wild Tales is a series of six vignettes loosely tied together by one theme: vengeance. An anthology is basically a series of short stories, and the problem is crafting complete narratives in a limited time frame. Wild Tales has this problem, too, but not right off the bat. The first story is both the shortest and the most fulfilling, centering on a fateful airplane flight full of passengers who share an unfortunate connection. It’s a hilarious piece that hits you in the teeth and makes a promise that the rest of the film tries hard to keep but turns out to be about 50/50 in execution.
The rest of the shorts are a mixed bag of ever escalating violence perpetrated by angry people. The second story follows a poor waitress who encounters a customer who had previously destroyed her family. While she contemplates murdering the man, a sadistic cook inflames the already-volatile situation. It works as a breather from the first story, but isn’t especially clever. The third film works best because it’s simple and sadistic, following two men of different social classes involved in a road rage incident that explodes into a no holds barred melee. The fourth stars Ricardo Darin (The Secret In Their Eyes), probably the most recognizable face of the entire movie, as a demolitions expert who lets a parking ticket fuel his hatred for the governmental power structure.
At this point, Szifron’s screenplay has run out of things to say and is merely coasting by on piss and vinegar. The fifth film, about a rich family trying to cover up their son’s crime, is so dull it drags the rest of Wild Tales down. However, the sixth and final story is a blast and one that best could have made a separate film. It follows a just-married couple who have their wedding reception hilariously destroyed by infidelity. Szifron pulls back on the savagery just a little to spin an unconventionally sweet story about forgiveness.
Two hours turns out to be way too long for Szifron to tug on the vengeance thread, and Wild Tales could have been amazing if it lost about 45 minutes and maybe two segments. But he knows how to keep things moving, has a deft hand with comedy, and manages to make each scene feel different from the rest yet connected as part of the larger whole. That’s no small feat for a young filmmaker, and who knows? Maybe he was showing Almodovar a new trick or two?