by Matt Levine
Calling Wild Tales’ outlook on humanity “misanthropic” might be putting it lightly; in the film’s view, modern life is a maddening, scorn-fueled jungle, and the best you can hope for is simply to stay sane. Throughout this Argentinian anthology of six stories, the absurd pettiness of human beings is on display, cumulatively offering a savage satire of modern mores that would make Molière blush. Wild Tales might leave you with little faith regarding humanity’s redeeming qualities, but thankfully it’s smart, stylish, and viciously clever enough to make its cynicism incredibly entertaining.
Director: Damián Szifron
Producers: Agustín Almodóvar, Pedro
Almodóvar, Esther García, Matías Mosteirín, Hugo Sigman
Writer: Damián Szifron
Cinematographer: Javier Julia
Editors: Pablo Barbieri Carrera, Damián Szifron
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla
Cast: Darío Grandinetti, María Marull, Mónica Villa, Rita Cortese, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Walter Donado, Ricardo Darin, Erica Rivas, Diego Gentile
Premiere: May 17, 2014 – Cannes
US Theatrical Release: Feb. 20, 2015
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
The outlandish tone is set in the prologue sequence, entitled “Pasternak.” A beautiful woman (María Marull)—a model, we soon learn—boards an airplane, shrugging off the lascivious looks from the men around her. (This isn’t a primary theme in the film, but it’s incredible how Wild Tales’ writer-director, Damián Szifron, makes us immediately aware of the casual lechery indulged by the men onscreen, making us aware of the rampant objectification that she must withstand—and in which some movies are complicit in portraying their female characters.) As she takes her seat on the plane and strikes up a conversation with a music critic, it becomes clear that they both know one Gabriel Pasternak—in fact, they both slighted him in some way. Other nearby passengers start piping up in mounting confusion: Pasternak’s former psychologist, his best friend, his grade-school teacher, all of them are present on this flight. More importantly, all of them admit to some betrayal. And who happens to be piloting this jet—and has just locked himself in the cockpit—other than Gabriel Pasternak? Like a cross between The Twilight Zone and Curb Your Enthusiasm, “Pasternak” runs with its nefarious concept and achieves an absurdist depiction of petty vengeance on an outsized scale, ending with one of the best freeze-frames in recent cinematic memory.
Before the second story commences, we’re treated to Wild Tales’ opening credits—actually one of the film’s best moments. Accompanied by Gustavo Santaolalla’s fiery music, a series of still photographs depicting wildlife—a watchful fox, a predatory cougar, a victimized gazelle—makes clear that Szifron considers humans no better than other animals, though our savagery is played out in a jungle of concrete and bureaucracy and digital communication.
The second story, “The Rats,” is one of Wild Tales’ weakest, involving a surly mobster who shows up to a remote diner in a rainstorm, only to have the waitress realize this was one of the gangsters who drove her father to suicide. As with most of the film’s episodes, a reasonable sense of injustice soon skyrockets into outright brutality and escalating stakes, but there is less cleverness here (and less begrudging sympathy) than in some of Wild Tales’ better sequences. Same with a later story entitled “The Proposal,” in which a spoiled rich kid accidentally runs over a pregnant woman, then flees the scene—causing the kid’s father and their well-heeled lawyer to propose a scheme whereby the groundskeeper is paid half a million dollars to take the rap. This sequence explicitly presents class animosity (a subtler theme in many of the other episodes) as a recipe for disaster, and the increasingly convoluted nature of the family’s financial arrangement has a Kafkaesque dark humor, but the story is more predictable and unrelentingly bitter than many of the others.
By contrast, the better sequences don’t necessarily sympathize with their characters—all of them are fairly awful human beings, or at least heavily flawed—but there’s a wicked sense of cosmic absurdity in them, as though some higher power has made us vindictive creatures simply to watch the skirmishes that play out. The clearest example of this ice-cold existentialism is “The Strongest,” in which a wealthy asshole in a gleaming Audi passes a redneck on the highway, shouting insults as he does. Inevitably, the businessman gets a flat a few miles down the road; it isn’t long before his highway antagonist shows up, leading to an apocalyptic mano-a-mano involving defecation, strangling by seatbelt, and a savage final shot that is the very definition of black comedy. Again, Szifron shows no compassion whatsoever to these self-styled warriors, but there’s a larger-than-life impression that they have no choice but to exercise their primal kill-or-be-killed survivalism, a component of human nature that is often disguised by more civilized forms.
The best sequence in the anthology, though, is “Little Bomb,” a mini-masterpiece of governmental indifference and cathartic retribution that’s about money, family, politics, anarchy, and the efficacy of well-placed explosives. A demolitions expert’s car is towed while he’s buying a birthday cake for his daughter, though there were no signs prohibiting parking anywhere in sight; his valid protestations make him late for his daughter’s birthday, setting off a chain of cause-and-effect that could lose him his family and his job. It’s only after the man retaliates in grandiose fashion against the towing company that he finds love from his family and respect from his fellow Argentinians—albeit from the inside of a prison cell. Here, finally, is a character we might root for, although it demonstrates Szifron’s twisted sense of humor that the film’s most relatable character is a fed-up cog in the bureaucratic machine whose actions might be considered terrorist anarchy.
Wild Tales’ final sequence, “Until Death Do Us Part,” perfectly encapsulates the movie’s strengths and weaknesses—which is somewhat unfortunate, since it also feels like the longest sequence. At the most cataclysmic tying of the knot since Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding, a beautiful young bride finds out about her new husband’s infidelity at the reception, catalyzing a disastrous series of tearful confessions, hate-filled rants, retaliatory cheating, physical attacks, and ultimately (maybe) a reconciliation symbolized by the husband and wife’s hate-sex on the destroyed wedding cake. The episode is exuberantly stylish, but it also deteriorates into a tired depiction of hysterical womanhood—then deteriorates even further until everyone is weeping and screaming, all of them so selfish and melodramatic that the wedding quickly plummets to its lowest possible point. While much of Wild Tales is uncomfortably funny because it’s so relatable—asking us if we’d behave differently in many of these circumstances—this final sequence loses its grasp on human nature, portraying characters whose cartoonish hysteria seems arch and gratuitous. The last shot of the movie is a paradox: it could either suggest that human connection is possible despite our innate self-absorption, or it could declare once and for all that human constructions such as marriage are simply futile attempts to prove that we’re more civil than the animal kingdom. The end of the movie isn’t exactly satisfying, but it aptly suggests that human nature might be redeemable, despite its numerous flaws.
These six mordant stories might not amount to much beyond a flamboyant depiction of humanity’s pettiness; despite Szifron’s stealthy portrayals of class and gender inequality and government greed, Wild Tales doesn’t really provide a cohesive statement on human nature. We simply are this way; there’s no social wellspring for this animosity, no recipe for improvement. But even if Wild Tales does just offer a well-made diatribe on the stupidity of man, it is at least a dazzling one, with a sleek, pristine craftsmanship that partially explains the movie’s nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars. Call it a perfectly calibrated prank, in other words, with Szifron venting some apparent misanthropy in incredibly engaging fashion. There is undoubtedly great pleasure to be had in observing each story’s meticulous build-up and payoff, the sequences scripted with the ironic precision of O. Henry or Guy de Maupassant.
As visually ravishing as they are carefully written, these stories rely on the sort of in-your-face, disorienting aesthetic as Breaking Bad, utilizing a number of vertiginous crane shots and impossible POVs that suggest Szifron’s omniscient perspective, a winking, godlike acknowledgement that these people are practically fated for self-destruction. The color scheme is radiantly bright, recalling one of Wild Tales’ executive producers, Pedro Almodóvar. The film’s aesthetic might not have the benefit of complexity or tenderness, but it’s clever and exuberant enough to ingratiate the audience through more immediate, visceral means.
The enthusiasm with which you accept Wild Tales’ emphatic grumpiness depends, I suppose, on your preexisting attitude towards human nature: if you feel we’re an ultimately positive, well-intentioned species, hampered by existential doubts but mostly capable of love, then you might grow tired and resentful of Wild Tales’ singularly pessimistic vision. If, on the other hand, you believe human beings deserve a good dose of castigation and mockery, you’ll be overjoyed by Wild Tales, which ridicules our modern existence with merciless exactitude. While I wish that Wild Tales would add a little more meat to its acrimonious bones, that doesn’t change the fact that the film is a blast; the most important compliment you could apply to it, perhaps, is that it never once threatens to become dull.