Whichever anonymous Old Testament author coined the phrase “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” was dispensing sage advice. One of the lessons that wise people learn from experience is that the taste of revenge is usually sweeter in the mind, rehearsed in gleeful anticipation, than in the mouth, played out in real life with all its unintended consequences. And those of us with any consciences at all – or any street smarts, for that matter – know better than to act out every retribution fantasy that we might have occasion to contemplate.
But that doesn’t stop us from thoroughly enjoying portrayals of poetic justice on the printed page or onscreen; indeed, vengeance has been one of the most popular and enduring motifs of storytelling since storytelling began. It’s a theme that can be shaped a million ways; and six of them, spun with impeccable skill on every level of filmcraft and abundant black humor, form the core of the terrific Argentine/Spanish movie Wild Tales (Relajes Salvages), directed by Damián Szifron and currently showing at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck.
Szifron is known mainly for his work on Argentine television, as is most of the enormous and highly talented ensemble cast of this episodic film. But the presence of Spanish bad-boy brothers Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar among its producers should be a tipoff that this movie is going to cement the young director’s place in the arthouse firmament. Wild Tales was wildly well-received on the festival circuit and was just edged out of the 2014 Best Foreign Film Oscar by the Polish film Ida. If you can’t recall the last time you walked out of a cinema with the words “instant classic” leaping to mind, you owe it to yourself to see this movie. It’s that good.
Stylistically, Wild Tales has elements reminiscent of Fellini and Peckinpah, Buñuel and Demme, Itami and Altman. Its six segments – all treating with people in extremis, pushed to the limits of their tolerance and overreacting spectacularly – mix classical tragedy and Grand Guignol gore with Kafkaesque political satire and shaggy-dog-story waggishness. It recognizes no limits to humanity’s capacity for vengeful excess and venal manipulation, and takes us over the top so often that the very notion of “top” becomes meaningless. It’s dark, gross and excessive, but mostly it’s laugh-out-loud funny in the way that The Wolf of Wall Street tried to be but wasn’t.
The one exception in the humor department is the relatively grim fifth segment, La Propuesta (The Proposal), in which a wealthy man tries to bribe his caretaker to take the rap when his son kills a pregnant woman in a hit-and-run accident. Soon his lawyer, the prosecutor, the police chief and everybody else want a piece of the action. It’s a sly, scathing sendup of the corruption that still permeates post-Junta Argentine society. The fourth segment, Bombita (Little Bomb), about a demolition expert driven to desperate measures by the callous indifference of government functionaries after his car gets towed from a No Parking zone, also skewers Argentine bureaucracy, but in a much more farcical way, recalling Terry Gilliam’s dystopian fantasy Brazil.
Subtly or overtly, the theme of class warfare underlies several of these stories. In Las Ratas (The Rats), a waitress in a shabby diner finds herself serving a meal to a notorious loan shark who drove her father to suicide and her family to penury; then the cook reminds her that their kitchen is equipped with rat poison. El Más Fuerte (The Strongest) turns an episode of macho road rage into a gruesome-but-hilarious, no-holds-barred battle between the redneck driver of a battered old truck and a yuppie with an expensive new ride.
The opening segment of Wild Tales, Pasternak, concerns a young woman who boards an airliner and discovers that the man sitting across the aisle from her is the music critic whose savage review sank her ex-boyfriend’s career. Coincidences begin to escalate, and to say any more would be to spoil the most perfect, mind-blowing set piece since driver Albert Brooks picked up hitchhiker Dan Aykroyd in the prologue to John Landis’ Twilight Zone: The Movie.
The final Wild Tale, Hasta que la Muerte Nos Separe (Until Death Do Us Part), begins in a spirit of jubilation, at a festive Jewish wedding reception propelled by an excellent band called the Babel Orkesta. But the bride quickly deduces from a mysterious cell phone number that her groom is having an affair with one of the women at his co-workers’ table. From bleakest despair she moves to a rage as transcendent as that of the Bride in the Kill Bill movies, with an outcome nearly as messy as Game of Thrones’s notorious Red Wedding, but more emotionally satisfying in the end.
It’s a great final movement to a movie that’s a profane symphony of righteous wrath, doomed human stupidity and ironies piled upon ironies. You’ll need a strong stomach to get through parts of Wild Tales, but you’ll walk out of it with a big grin on your face. I promise. Just don’t try this stuff at home, kids.
Wild Tales (Relajes Salvages), showing all week at Upstate Films/Rhinebeck, 6415 Montgomery Street/Route 9, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-2515, https://upstatefilms.org.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.