Superimposed on images of wild animals, the opening credits for “Wild Tales” pave the way for a marvelous satire filled with deranged Argentines driven by primal desires to act out. Pedro Almodovar’s is among the producing credits, further laying the groundwork for a movie rich in playful and macabre outbursts. Writer-director Damián Szifron has accumulated a filmography in his native country for years without the rest of the world taking much notice (and also worked on the television series “The Pretenders”), but there’s more than enough rambunctious innovation and intelligence on display here to change that for good.
Developed around six distinct stories of surrealist showdowns and revenge plots, “Wild Tales” enacts a savage assault on contemporary Argentine society, skewering class and gender biases through a series of morbid segments alive with dark humor. Though Almodovar’s stylish blend of comedy and melodrama is a handy point of reference, the movie unfolds like a Buñuel comedy on speed, veering from one gasp-inducing instance to another.
The introductory segment involves airline passengers who gradually realize they’ve been lured by a mutual acquaintance who has bones to pick with all of them. But even before that ridiculous premise comes together, Szifron lays the groundwork in a brief conversation: “Business or pleasure?” a man asks the woman across the aisle.” Her reply—”Both, I hope”—echoes Szifron’s challenge: making a series of extreme statements on the collective anger among the country’s citizens aimed at professional and personal issues alike. For the next two hours, he tackles that goal with a merciless eye.
Each chapter of “Wild Tales” invokes some aspect of revenge, although the only consistent element is a terrific sense of production values. Impeccably edited with fluid camerawork and a scale that includes a fair number of explosions, bloody fights and stunt work, the movie’s polished quality holds its polemics together.
In each segment, Szifron positions the anticipation of gruesome outcomes like recurring buildups to abstract punchlines. There’s an early bit that ranks as one of the best freeze frames in the history of the movies (not to mention one of several moments that inspired spontaneous applause at the first Cannes press screening, always a rarity). Another chapter begins with a waitress who’s urged to put rat poison in the food of a customer who traumatized her childhood, but concludes with the sudden entrance of a knife.
A later installment exclusively set on a desolate bridge finds two men gripped by road rage that takes a series of grotesque turns of both the gory and scatalogical variety. This segment in particular illustrates Szifron’s brilliant investment in shamelessly upping the ante at every moment, taking the “crime of passion” concept to delirious heights with an ongoing brawl that suggests an uber-violent live-action Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. “I see violence everywhere,” one character says, effectively stating the movie’s raison d’être.
Szifron makes no cheeky attempts to merge his mini-stories, but no single entry follow the exact same beats. The tale of an explosion expert striking back at a tow truck company begins in straightforward fashion before erupting into a peculiar ode to anarchy, while the account of a wealthy man negotiating a scheme to keep his son out of prison hinges on the inane intricacies of verbal sparring over money. Arriving midway through, this story lacks the same satisfying momentum of the rest, but it still manages to make its gags work.
Szifron saves the best for last with an outstanding closing chapter about a wedding that goes very, very wrong, culminating in its bride delivering a curse for the ages against her unfaithful husband and a grisly showdown on the dance floor involving broken glass, cake, and oodles of blood. The bizarrely touching conclusion is a cynical take on the ups and downs of a relationship, hinting at the idea that even a mad world divided against itself thrives on the need for companionship.
Judging by the movies, Argentineans are itching to take stand against the country’s backward social constructs and bureaucratic hangups alike. “Wild Tales” arrives only a few months after the festival premiere of first-time director Benjamin Naishtat’s “History of Fear,” a similarly allegorical take on class-based unrest that focuses on a series of citizens indulging in crazy behavior. But while Naishtat’s effort plays like an abstract horror movie, “Wild Tales” uses the mold of sketch comedy to assemble an epic indulgence in a demented form of catharsis. With a who’s-who cast of major Argentinean actors (prominent names include “The Secret in Their Eyes” star Ricardo Darín and María Onetto of “The Headless Woman”), “Wild Tales” feels like a joint effort to make the bold gamble of Szifron’s premise hold together.
Despite the rampant silliness, no scene is too far from a legitimate observation. “Everyone wants these guys to get what they deserve,” says the scheming waitress as she plots to fight back, “but no one lifts a finger.” And when one figure attempts to wipe his hands of his position’s less admirable aspects by playing the job card, he’s told, “People who work for villains are also villains.”
Sustaining these insights with a steady blend of comedy and suspense, “Wild Tales” finds everyone seeking an outlet for their rage and in many cases relishing in the fantasy of achieving it. While adhering to an internal logic that makes each punchline land with a satisfying burst of glee, the movie nevertheless stems from genuine fury aimed a broken world. It’s the rare storytelling endeavor that manages to be laughably absurd and profoundly tragic at the same time.
“Wild Tales” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this week. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film at an undetermined date. Warner Bros. will release it overseas.