Early on in Wild Tales, a telling moment gives writer-director Damián Szifrón’s entire game away. After a surprisingly unhinged O. Henry-informed prologue that effectively telegraphs to the audience that anything goes, we’re dropped into a remote café near closing time. A cook (Rita Cortese) is trying to talk a waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) into poisoning a walk-in (César Bordón) who once ruined the latter’s life, reasoning, implicitly, that this is the only way folks like them can have justice from people of stature like him. The cook clearly has a storied history that might render her an old hand at this sort of thing, while the waitress is a comparative idealist who can’t admit to herself that she wants this man dead. The cook says not to worry about prison either, and hell, worst case, it’s not that bad anyway, as room and board is provided, and there are cards to play and friends to make. She reasons that she felt freer in prison than she ever did outside.
That last sentiment expresses aloud the theme that governs Wild Tales, and Szifrón underlines it over and over, as if dementedly checking a proof: A real prison at least exhibits the decency of blunt transparency. Each of the six vignettes that make up this unusually energetic anthology pertains to the methods of calculated mass dehumanization that are (barely) hidden beneath the practices of social institutions, whose mercenary rationales are necessarily taken for granted by the mass populace in order to more or less get by. As a character essentially says at a point in the film, just accept that bureaucracy will find a way to get most of your money no matter what and move on with your life, because that way you’ll live longer than if you give the unfairness of the matter any prolonged thought. As such, any glimmer of tension can unleash the resentment that slowly accumulates within many as an adaptive reaction to the casual humiliations they weather daily. Though the film is set in Argentina, the hostilities that Szifrón lances with nihilistic abandon will be known to residents of much of the world, including the United States.
Though it’s remarkably consistent for an anthology film, Wild Tales has a few botched punchlines (the latter stories too often end on an anticlimactic whimper) and an organizational problem. The three best pieces are offered sequentially in the first hour, which leads to a subtle tapering-off effect that was probably intended so as to end this decidedly bleak tragicomedy on a comparatively “optimistic” note. And certain shorts, such as a prolonged knockabout comedy set at a wedding reception, overstay their welcome, landing their points early on and proceeding to hammer them into the ground. This tendency is particularly noticeable given that every story wearyingly has the same intention: to ridicule the pompous pretense of civility that hounds its chosen setting.
But, even at its most determinedly frantic, the film displays a consistently exhilarating sense of invention that reacquaints you with the pure “what happens next?” pull of good narrative, and one segment is a visceral masterpiece of short filmmaking that boils all of the project’s overriding classist proletariat frustrations down to one terrifying and hilarious exertion of physical will. It follows two men who get locked in an escalating one-upmanship of road rage that suggests Looney Tunes by way of Jim Thompson by way of William Friedkin. Szifrón emphasizes stifling sounds (the breaking of glass, the pumping of a car jack, the twisting of tires), contrasting them with wide desert vistas that mock an increasingly claustrophobic situation. The final image ghoulishly encapsulates the cracked democratic irony that informs the entire film: of enemies together, oblivious to the fact that they are, despite their differences, ultimately stuck in the same social trap.