Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Bleak Mirror: WILD TALES


Wild Tales lives up to its name and then some. A collection of six short films from Argentinean director Damián Szifrón, each story features seemingly ordinary people pushed into madness. These are bitter, ugly, violent, unpredictable stories of everyday life going beyond the expected in twisted, hilariously dark directions. It’s a jaw-dropper, electric with misanthropic guffaws stuck in the throat. One can read such invigorating cynicism as righteous fury over the state of the world and the venom that lies in the hearts of mankind. Or you can read it as an explosion of brutal bleak comedy, taking human impulses to the edge of propriety and beyond. Either way, it’s a roiling hoot. Incredibly popular in its home country, this is uproarious and lively chaos tapping into populist rage. It put me in mind of Lacan’s observation that most people actually do love thy neighbor as thyself, since most people hate themselves.

Some of the characters across six separate stories find petty annoyances escalating into violent retaliation. Others take drastic action against more obvious wrongs. Either way, they end badly. We start on a plane, where the passengers realize they all happen to know the same man. Worse, they’ve all done something he’s hated them for. Yikes. Then, we go to an empty roadside diner, where the waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) has good reason to hate their only customer (César Bordón), and the ex-con cook (Rita Cortese) is only too happy to suggest a criminal solution. These opening salvos of revenge are violent and upsetting, absurd in their matter-of-fact horror, and scary in their plausibility. They turn on terrifyingly logical conclusions, startling and funny in their inevitability.

Next, a story about road rage finds an explosive end, followed by a story about a man (Ricardo Darín) trapped in a maze of traffic tickets whose impotent anger turned potent. These are slightly more conventional. The feud between two drivers (Leonardo Sbaraglia and Walter Donado) escalates on a predictable path, like Spielberg’s Duel made uglier and more personal, but is remarkably exciting in its astounding willingness to go well past the point of no return. The story of the frustrated man trapped in a cruel, uncaring DMV bureaucracy is funny enough, I suppose, but it’s the weakest of the six. It isn’t telling us anything we haven’t heard before, flirts with sexism, and mostly serves as a nice pause before the crescendo of the final segments. Maybe because I was enjoying the film’s pessimism so much, I just didn’t respond to this short’s ending, the relatively happiest of the bunch.

Saving the best stories for last, we spend some time with a rich man (Oscar Martínez) trying to bribe his son’s hit-and-run indictment away. Then we meet up at a wedding reception spinning out of control when the bride (Érica Rivas) learns the groom (Diego Gentile) has been cheating on her, and with one of their guests, no less. While just as broad as the earlier segments in their exaggerated race to the extremes of the human experience, these two shorts are the most sociologically precise in the bunch, curdled comedies of manners. A roomful of rich guys debating how much money it will take to wave off a manslaughter charge is potent class critique, dark and dryly sidesplitting. Then, intensely appealing comic melodrama is found as a wedding immediately evaporates in manic bad feelings, the loud party thumping dance music while people go understandably mad. Sia’s “Titanium” makes for an ironic counterpoint to the crumbling relationship on display.

Each story unspools with expertly framed visual panache and unyielding forward momentum. With Javier Julia's gorgeous widescreen staging and walloping precise sound, Szifrón has complete tonal control as he swiftly sets up each new situation, getting an audience invested in the character’s plights and situations quickly. As with most anthologies, some of the stories are better than others. But the consistency amongst these tales is high, as each rollicking nightmare worst-case-scenario rolls into the next. Laughter catches, then erupts with renewed vigor as events spiral even further out of control than you’d thought. Turning on Twilight Zone (or O. Henry, or any twisty sketches) style conclusions, they nonetheless remain defiantly moral-less. We’re not meant to take away any lesson, just that the world is an awful place. Doing the right thing and treating people with kindness might save you. Or it might not.

In gleefully digging around in horrible situations for razor-sharp plotting, Wild Tales is a very dark comedy, and yet it’s also one of the most crowd-pleasing moviegoing experiences I’ve had in recent memory. Rather than being turned off by its poison-pen misanthropy, the audience around me ate the film up, howling with laughter at each bloody twist of the comic knife, then gasping and chortling when it drew blood. It is relatable madness, stories of everyday people taking their true feelings for one another to extremes. It’s mean-spirited, but of an exhilarating, hugely entertaining variety.

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