Damián Szifrón delivers with his dark ‘Wild Tales’

Wild Tales - B

Tales of revenge are as old as humanity itself. They fulfill a primitive need for reciprocity, appealing to our basest natures. God and bible be damned — maybe it's the recognition that one should never underestimate another's need to get even that forms the true backbone of our moral code.

At the very least, Argentinian writer-director Damián Szifrón seems to suggest that mankind operates on a perverse system of grudges, insults, betrayals, and jealousies, and that at their most extreme (and entertaining) the results are murder and mayhem.

Nominated for the best foreign language Oscar, Wild Tales doubles down on that premise over and over again as it depicts six bloody, outrageous, and sometimes very clever stories of vengeance. Much like the British horror anthologies (Tales From The Crypt, Dr. Terror's House Of Horrors, etc.) of the late '60s and early '70s, Szifrón's thematically linked tales suggest that the line between humanity and savagery is thinner than we would like to admit. In fact, the film's Spanish title, Relatos Salvajes, translates more closely as "Savage Tales," which is a more fitting moniker. Nevertheless, for those seeking to witness some violently cathartic comeuppance, his collection mostly delivers the goods.

Szifrón's biggest mistake, however, is kicking things off with his shortest and best vignette, the pre-credit "Pasternak." Set aboard a commercial airline flight, a leggy model (María Marull) begins chatting with a fellow passenger, a music critic (Darío Grandinetti), and discovers that they both know and dislike the same acquaintance — Gabriel Pasternak. Soon, other passengers join in on their conversation and things take an unexpectedly catastrophic turn for the worse. The episode is tight, florid, and unsettling, promising a movie of mordant wit and pitch-black humor. Unfortunately, nothing afterward is quite its equal.

Wild Tales' second vignette introduces us to a waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) who realizes her one customer of the night is the moneylender who drove her father to suicide. Goaded by the chef into poisoning the man's food, the situation takes some horrifically unexpected turns.

The film's third entry — an audience-pleasing exercise in violent slapstick — examines just how far out of control an instance of road rage can get.

The fourth sees a father (Ricardo Darín) rage against the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that towed his car while he was buying his daughter's birthday cake. Convinced the citation was unjust, his fight unravels his life but puts his skills as a demolitions engineer to good use. Corruption also becomes a pivot point in the fifth episode, when a wealthy father tries to cover up his spoiled son's lethal hit and run of a pregnant driver.

The final and longest chapter in Wild Tales is "Till Death Do Us Part," wherein Romina (Erica Rivas) discovers during her frenzied, over-the-top wedding that her handsome groom (Diego Gentile) is having an affair with one of the guests. I won't give away much except to say that the couple's dance becomes one to remember, and for those who have sat through one too many insufferably self-indulgent nuptials, the outcome is strangely satisfying.

There's a fine line between clever and smug, and Szifrón rides that line hard, reveling in the brutality and explosive emotions on display. His candy-colored approach (which may remind some of Pedro Almodóvar, who produced) is prickly and anxiety inducing, milking genre conventions for all their worth. The first three mini-narratives work best, because they balloon relatable grudges into instances of extreme absurdity. The latter three, which grow progressively longer in length, find decent final twists but never get transgressive enough to impress. While they illustrate the arrogance of the elite in contemporary Argentine society, their indictments are both too tidy and obvious.

Wild Tales is, of course, predicated on the idea that people, if pushed hard enough, will react with the kind of bloodlust and hostility that's normally reserved for psychopaths. Szifrón is aiming for satire here, trying to earn laughs by demonstrating the extremes of human failings. And though his vignettes hit or miss in their effectiveness, they also offer up the laudably cautionary idea that vengeful catharsis may not be something we should readily embrace. After all, an eye for an eye ... and all that.

Wild Tales is rated R and 122 minutes.

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