You know how sometimes, when you're on top of a building, looking down at the city below and you think, "It would be cool if I just jumped." It's not that you're suicidal. You're having a lovely day, up there on that building, with that great view. It's just that you have an inexplicable urge to do the unthinkable. The French have a term for this: l'appel du vide, the "call of the void." That you don't act on these passing impulses is a safe assumption to make, because if you did, you wouldn't be reading this. Wild Tales is about the people who do.
Argentine director Damián Szifron's film is an anthology of six short stories of people pushed beyond their breaking points. Its fatalistic atmosphere is reminiscent of Robert Altmans' 1993 symphony of Los Angeles dysfunction Short Cuts, but it does not share Altman's signature structure of delicately interwoven storylines. Wild Tales is entirely linear, allowing Szifron's ruthless narrative instincts to play out quickly and efficiently.
The stories he brings his instincts to bear on weave together class oppression, corporate injustice, government corruption, sexual betrayal, and just plain meanness to create a tapestry of human folly. The stories' setups are all fairly banal and believable: Two strangers on a plane discover they know the same man, a hack musician named Gabriel Pasternak. A waitress at a roadside diner recognizes a man who wronged her family in the past. A man driving through the desert gets cut off by another car, so he flips him the bird and calls him a "redneck asshole." A demolition engineer stops by a bakery after a successful implosion to pick up a birthday cake for his daughter, but his car is towed by a corrupt wrecker service, causing him to miss the party. A rich kid, drunk-driving his dad's BMW, kills a pregnant woman in a hit-and-run accident. A happy newlywed couple is enjoying their huge (and expensive) reception when a flash of jealousy intrudes.
Revealing more than the barest plot information about the individual segments would spoil the wicked pleasure of watching things quickly escalate into the realm of the absurd. Szifron's characters don't just make bad decisions, they make the worst decisions possible. And yet, everything seems reasonable while they're doing it, right up until the bottom drops out, and the film's deliciously wicked sense of humor takes over.
Working with cinematographer Javier Julia, Szifron uses his eye for clean, meticulous composition to quickly paint character portraits and impart plot points. When Mauricio (Oscar Martinez), the wealthy father of the drunk driver, finds himself boxed in by corrupt lawyers, prosecutors, police, and his own family, Szifron and Julia frame him ominously in the window of his expensive, modernist home. The filmmakers know how to get light to do their bidding as well. When the wedding reception of Romina (the outstanding Erica Rivas) and Ariel (Diego Gentile) is at its most festive, the room is at its darkest, giving the scene a sense that a Caravaggio painting has come to life. It's rare, but extremely refreshing, to see such visual craftsmanship brought to bear on a comedy.
The rich, the powerful, the vain, and the corrupt are the particular targets of Wild Tales' avenging spirit, but the plucky little guy is not spared his share of the pain, either. Szifron's tone walks a harrowing tightrope between Black Mirror social commentary and the anarchy of the 2004 Spanish comedy El Crimen Perfecto. Even though it has multiple story lines, it's not preachy or self-important like Crash. The film has become an international hit after premiering at Canne and becoming Argentina's top grosser of 2014. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Feature at this year's Academy Awards, and it's not hard to see why. If there's one shot that sums the whole thing up, it's when Ariel, the groom, looking out across the horrible mess his wedding reception has become, cuts himself a big slice of wedding cake and shoves it into his mouth with his bare hands. The world is going to hell. All bets are off. Might as well enjoy it.