How to discuss this giddily inventive Argentinian feature without ruining its many surprises? The chief pleasure of Wild Tales is its sheer unpredictability; throughout the film, writer-director Damián Szifron flips the tone from farce to horror and back again, piles up absurd coincidences, and without warning throws his characters into life-or-death situations. The film presents six stories about revenge and chance, each beginning believably but getting progressively crazier as it goes along. Szifron routinely sacrifices plausibility for narrative showmanship—more than any of the actors, he’s the star of the show. One could argue that he treats his characters like puppets (the escalating, violent rivalries suggest an elaborate Punch and Judy show), yet a good puppeteer can raise his craft to the level of art, which Szifron often succeeds in doing. As you might guess from the title, his theme is the joy of storytelling itself.
Wild Tales might trade in implausibility, but it never abandons its surface realism. The settings, ranging from a rural tavern to a suburban mansion, are realized in precise, albeit understated detail—nothing ever looks unusual. By the same token, the characters are all recognizable types: the protagonists include a bullish country mechanic, a workaholic middle-class patriarch, and a spoiled young woman from an enclave of bourgeois Jews. Szifron elicits naturalistic performances from his cast (at the start of each story, anyway), though no one emerges as entirely sympathetic. Through telling gestures, Szifron quickly establishes each character’s assets and flaws, which are exhibited in roughly equal measure. This evenhanded approach heightens the suspense of the onscreen rivalries, since the film rarely cues the viewer to identify with one character over another.
The film’s deadpan style, outlandish complications, and digressive structure reminded me of Luis Buñuel’s episodic late features The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974), and like Buñuel, Szifron recognizes the potential for surreality in the mundane. In one story, a character’s luxury car becomes a death trap as each custom feature gets repurposed as a weapon. In another, a man’s struggle to fight a parking ticket takes him from one bureaucratic dead end to another, the maze of red tape like a divine punishment. Nowhere is the air of dread thicker, though, than in the last episode, set at a lavish wedding. Even before the violent complications begin, Szifron presents the upper-middle-class milieu as suffocating, suggesting that accepted social conventions can be as bizarre as any work of fiction.