April 17 — April 23
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Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
The opening credits of writer-director Damián Szifrón’s blisteringly funny anthology film appear over a montage of photographs depicting some of nature’s most ferocious predators. The joke makes more sense as these “wild tales” unfold: the movie’s point is that human beings are natural predators, too, always on the lookout for prey and unwilling to release it when we have its throat within our grasps. In this context, “prey” stands for anyone we believe is an enemy, someone who’s wronged us and needs to pay for it. The six stories comprising Szifrón’s dark comedy are thematically, not narratively related; they’re all tales of “ordinary” people who get the chance to enact revenge, not just against a single person who hurt them in the past, but implicitly against society itself for setting up social, economic, and bureaucratic roadblocks that thwart our happiness. Though this nominee for Best Foreign Film of 2014 hails from Argentina, its characters’ frustration, rage, and self-pity will strike a chord with audiences from any country. Though often pitiable and exaggerated, their anger is recognizable, and viewers might vicariously enjoy the idea of getting back at a villainous figure responsible for someone else’s suffering, even if the unpredictable outcomes of these stories pervert that idea of “karmic justice” in often astonishing ways. In the first tale, a male airplane passenger flirts with a female fellow traveler. In the course of their conversation, they both realize they’ve made enemies of the same man; gradually, the passengers overhearing this discovery reveal that they, too, knew this person, leading to a startling conclusion that short story ironist Hector Hugh Munro (a.k.a. “Saki”) would have applauded. The next story examines more deeply the moral quandary of contemplating revenge, when a café waitress must deal with a customer who once ruined her life as a child. Playing the role of Satan in this morality play is the restaurant’s female cook, who tries to persuade the waitress to poison the guy, explaining that even if she goes to prison, it’s not so bad, her bed and board are all paid for. In another story, a city slicker encounters a maddeningly slow-driving “hick” on a lonely stretch of desert highway and their road rage escalates into a cartoonish nightmare beyond what even Steven Spielberg and Richard Matheson imagined in that classic vehicular showdown, Duel. Another story follows an engineer whose car has been towed one time too many. He’s a demolitions expert, so his anticipated vengeance against the DMV is way over the top, yet viewers might find themselves cheering him on. In another story, a pregnant woman becomes the victim of a hit-and-run accident. Her husband vows revenge while the wealthy family whose son drove the car tries to cover up his crime. Attorneys are brought in on both sides, but their corruption is so ingrained that legal justice hasn’t a chance. And in the final tale, perhaps the most raucously slapstick of the half-dozen, a bride discovers that her husband has been cheating on her and uses the wedding reception as an arena for humiliating vengeance. Like the other stories, this one ends in a way we don’t anticipate, not necessarily providing the catharsis we might want but ending with a deeper, more resonant conclusion that cheerily mocks the characters’ worst instincts. Maybe we’re not really predators after all, Szifrón might be saying; maybe we occasionally like to think of ourselves as vicious, brutal beasts so we can forget that we’re all victims of the same societal traps, all of us are “prey” in one way or another. It’s a sobering thought, and one that makes these funny, sometimes violent, sometimes bizarre vignettes deeper than just simple revenge fantasies. Ultimately, Wild Tales suggests that “getting the upper hand” is itself a fantasy; there are no winners. Other movies have offered this message but it’s often delivered in a joyless, leaden fashion. Wild Tales is a comedy with a serious theme, but its ideas never dampen the film’s energy, imagination, and sheer fun. Szifrón is a born filmmaker, employing unusual and crazy camera set-ups, dialogue, and situations to keep audiences riveted. The bane of most anthology films is the varying quality of their offerings, but Wild Tales is consistently excellent. Though its six stories differ in tone, approach, and type of humor, the overarching theme (and Szifrón’s skill as a writer and director) make them remarkably cohesive. The primary source of the movie’s comedy is the idea that “civilization” is a shallow veneer, one that can be abandoned or discarded at the drop of a hat, by the unexpected appearance of a childhood bully, a car cutting you off on the highway, or an accident that ruins several lives. Human beings can go from civil to savage in less than thirty seconds, and Szifrón finds the innate humor of that reality in each of his O. Henry-like stories. We might also detect the cheeky sensibilities of one-time cinematic enfant terrible Pedro Almodóvar in this movie; not surprising, since he was one of the film’s producers. Szifrón seems to have absorbed Almodóvar’s narrative alacrity, love of extreme emotional states (bordering on classic soap opera), and colorful, dramatic characters. But Wild Tales brandishes a jet-black vein of humor that is all Szifrón’s, setting up his downtrodden heroes so we cheer on their thirst for vengeance even as he reveals how meaningless and hollow that victory is. It’s as crazy and politically incorrect as any American comedy but not unsympathetic to the plight of its put-upon, kicked-around characters. As Sound on Sight critic Zach Lewis remarks, the film contains “often as much pathos as there is blood and explosions… [it’s] a worthy dissection of humanity’s more impassioned moments.” It’s also exciting filmmaker from an up-and-coming talent who clearly loves cinema and knows how to get every ounce of comedy, suspense, drama, and moral inquiry out of the medium as possible. This is a film not to be missed.
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