I was somewhat leery going into the Argentine film and Academy Award nominee Wild Tales, a series of vignettes that center on a theme of revenge. Vignette movies: meh. Argentine vignette movies? Meh-to-the-nth-degree, as they conjure memories of cheesy, sleazy, pretentious european “art” films of the ‘70s. (The Giorgio Moroder interlude in the third vignette felt almost like the movie was mocking me.)
Oh, well, Pedro Almodovar is attached, so there’s that.
As it turns out, this is really good. Way better than the Oscar winner, Ida. And since it grabs you by the lapels from the teaser, I’m not sure what it says about the whole “Academy only watches first five minutes of foreign films” theory.
It’s not for everybody. First of all, it’s dark—very dark—humor. And it’s unsettling in more than one place. Writer/director Damián Szifron never takes the easy way out. Where the custom for vengeance tales is to be cathartic, where you identify with the vengeful one and never with his victims, it’s always a mixed bag here, to say the least. You can’t even always tell villain from victim for that matter.
There are six stories:
- A strange coincidence on a plane with dark implications.
- A mobster walks into a diner where the sole people working are a waitress whose father he drove to death, and a chef with a checkered past.
- A jerk on the road taunts another jerk on a lonely mountain road as he passes him, only to get a flat a few miles later.
- A demolitions expert who is constantly being harassed by predatory towing companies.
- A rich couple whose adult son is seeking to escape the consequences of his hit-and-run, who discover the depth (and cost) of corruption.
- A bride at a reception who discovers her groom has been unfaithful.
One of the problems with vignette movies is that they tend to stuff a few weak stories in with the strong ones, or they just feel like watching random TV programs because nothing ties the stories together.
These six stories are all pretty strong, have a similar tone, and the whole question of vengeance, both as a visceral reaction and as a moral (or immoral) acts as a kind of emotional tie. For a movie about vengeance, it’s remarkably non-judgmental, and it’s hard to say how the stories are going to turn out. (Except the last one, the end of which I thought was pretty inevitable. This isn’t bad, necessarily: It shows the consistency of the story telling.)
It’s very funny, if you like this sort of humor, which I do. And, as I said, there’s an unsettling toying with the audience, which is used to “picking a side” in movies about vengeance. (That’s why we go see vengeance movies, after all: To enjoy injustices being “corrected”.) So you might feel one way about a character, then revise that, then revise it again.
It’s not a “vicarious thrill” type of revenge, in other words.
If there’s a weakness to this, it’s that we do end up with a kind of ironic distance from our protagonists, which limits the emotional impact to a kind of queasiness and uncertainty. This is not what you’d call a “warm” picture.
Anyway, The Boy and I were very glad to have had a chance to see it. Very entertaining.