Why is it that horror films seem to have cornered the market on the anthology film? Obviously there is something about a scary tale that works really well in a short film, but the same could certainly be said for action, sci-fi, and (in this case) deep, dark, and sometimes brutally ironic humor. Fortunately we now have the deeply funny, confidently audacious, and frequently fascinating Argentine import called Wild Tales (aka Relatos salvajes) to enjoy; six miniature movies that focus on topics like frustration, desperation, and (mostly) retribution, but never at the expense of their darkly insightful sense of humor.
Story 1: a plane full of people slowly comes to realize that they all have something in common, and it’s not a good thing.
Story 2: a waitress finds herself serving food to the corrupt politician who has ruined her family.
Story 3: a “road rage” eruption the likes of which you’ve never seen as two angry men do vehicular battle in the desert.
Story 4: a man sees his life ruined by the bureaucracy of everyday life, his dwindling bank account, and several highly-aggressive tow truck drivers.
Story 5: a wealthy jerk pulls a bunch of strings to keep his rotten son out of jail following a tragic hit and run accident.
Story 6: a bride discovers that her groom has been unfaithful, during her wedding party, and all hell breaks loose.
Taken individually, each of these short films is simply fantastic: beautifully shot, cleverly written, and brilliantly performed little mini-morality plays, but what makes Wild Tales work as a whole is writer/director Damian Szifron’s bemused and sometimes trenchant analysis of the human condition. In other words, we’re all just a few bad moments away from becoming snarling, aggravated animals, and Wild Tales takes great delight in putting its characters through a colorfully brutal series of misadventures to prove that theory.
Each of the segments is knee-deep in irony, and each contains at least one or two unpleasant surprises. Story 3, for example, provides a masterfully simple example of how one angry gesture can (almost immediately) lead to a horrific chain reaction of events that simply cannot be undone. The fifth segment shows how the well-to-do often treat the lower class like actual property — and how quickly a mentality like that can prove to be their undoing. And the final tale simply must be seen to be believed. We’ve all heard the phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” but imagine a woman who is scorned during her own wedding reception. “Fury” barely even covers it!
Wild Tales is so offbeat, so audacious, and so remarkably confident about being so different, it should come as no surprise to learn that one of its producers is the great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. The film opens with a shocking bit of dark, ironic humor, which keeps the viewer unbalanced for the five stories that follow: you simply never know what’s going to happen from story to story, and it’s this rejection of basic storytelling conventions that allows Wild Tales to go from amusing to engrossing to virtually hypnotic.
One of the best compliments you can give to a short film, whether it’s a stand-alone piece or part of an anthology, is that you’d love to see a feature-length version of the same story. But while all six of the dizzyingly entertaining Wild Tales left me wanting more, they also work as a testament to the beauty of the short film: you never know when the story might end, which tosses everything you know about the three-act structure into lovely disarray. And that’s when you have to start paying attention.
Wild Tales is not just a film you’ll enjoy. It’s one you’ll want to talk about when it’s over, either to debate the morals of the film — or to convince someone else to watch it. Here’s hoping that the Oscar-nominated Wild Tales inspires other filmmakers to try their hand at omnibus-style storytelling, and not just the horror folks.