One of this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award hopefuls, Argentinian director Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales (2014) is an exuberant, obsidian-black comedy of violence and vengeance. Divided into a series of isolated sketches, each one tells a short story about how quickly madness can rip through the vestiges of civilisation with the appropriate provocation. The opening and most successful sketch involves a passenger airliner, wherein the passengers gradually realise that they’re all acquaintances – classmates, ex-girlfriends, teachers, psychiatrists – of one specific person, Gabriel Pasternak; an individual who has a bone to pick with all of them and has plotted an elaborate, all-inclusive revenge.
Each ‘wild tale’ hinges on a person being pushed to their limits. In one short, a waitress recognises the man in her restaurant as a local Mafioso who years before drove her father to suicide and two weeks later tried to seduce her mother. In another, an explosives expert for a big engineering company has his car unjustly towed away by the traffic police and, as a result loses his job, his marriage and even the possibility of seeing his daughter. Elsewhere, a bride learns in the middle of her extravagant wedding that her new husband has been unfaithful to her with one of the guests. Law and order seems to be suppressing these lost souls and the anarchic space that Szifron allows them gives his varied (often strange) characters the opportunity to redress the cosmic balance and meat out some payback.
Targets come from within Argentine society – the lazy corruption of municipal politics; the family at the wedding – but there’s also a disdain for rampant materialism which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. When a young man returns home having been involved in a hit-and-run incident that’s killed a pregnant woman, his rich father at first tries to bribe his son’s way out of it until he suspects he’s paying over the odds, at which point he begins to shrewdly barter. It isn’t always as clear cut. When, in a scene reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), a yuppie offends a truck driver, the ensuing fight is one of mutually assured destruction. We laugh at the cartoonish logic of the violence without really caring who wins or loses. As we pass from one story to another the relentless savagery does get a bit grinding. In addition, at two hours in length, Szifron’s film is perhaps one skit too long. Regardless, Wild Tales is an inventive, often hysterical ride.