Wild Tales

WILD TALES  * * * *

Starring Erica Rivas, Ricardo Darin, Diego Gentile, Oscar Martinez and Rita Cortese. Written and directed by Damian Szifron.

In his poem “The Shoelace,” Charles Bukowski writes of how “it’s not the large things that send a man to the madhouse” but rather “the continuing series of small tragedies.” Likening such events to a broken shoelace, he says “the dread of life is that swarm of trivialities that can kill quicker than cancer and which are always there.”

Wild Tales, the screamingly funny anthology film from writer-director Damian Szifron, is a movie of broken shoelaces. In six pitilessly hilarious vignettes, the filmmaker follows a handful of disparate characters who have been ground down for so long by everyday indignities that when they finally snap (under circumstances ranging from extraordinary to mundane) it is in great, gloriously cathartic conflagrations.

You don’t have to read up on Argentina’s history of systemic corruption to identify with these hapless souls pushed past their breaking points by the effrontery of the rich and privileged, or the fatalistic feeling that we’re all playing a rigged game. Some frustrations are sadly universal.

After a brief corker of a prologue, the next five stories average about twenty minutes or so in length and are united not by plot threads or overlapping characters, but instead by their mordant sensibility and a born showman’s knack for comic escalation. Szifron has been compared to Tarantino (presumably because of the episodic structure) and Almodovar (Pedro and Augstin share producer credits on the picture) but throughout I couldn’t help thinking of the Coens. He’s got a similar God’s-eye view of what fools we mortals be, along with the brothers’ barreling one-thing-after another worst-case-scenario logic and corkscrew kineticism. Indeed, the third chapter begins with a simple outburst of road-rage that snowballs into something like Steven Spielberg’s Duel by way of Raising Arizona.

The most emblematic sequence in Wild Tales serves as the film’s centerpiece, starring Nine Queens‘ conman Ricardo Darin as a mild-mannered demolitions engineer who one day, after picking up his daughter’s birthday cake, finds that his car has been towed. There was no signage informing him that he was illegally parked, but his increasingly flustered protests fall on deaf ears. Stumbling into a Kafka-esque rabbit hole of stubborn, arbitrary bureaucracy while kicking and screaming the whole way down, Darin ends up losing his family, his livelihood and eventually even his freedom over a small-potatoes matter of principle, which is (literally) blown out of all proportion until he emerges as an unlikely folk hero. Like all of these stories, it ends on a punchline that feels both out of left field and perfectly inevitable.

But Szifron saves the best for last. During the final segment we meet a blushing bride played by Erica Rivas, not at all pleased to discover that her new hubby has invited his mistress to their wedding reception. Rivas rapid-cycles through the stages of grief while the precision-tooled filmmaking grows spectacularly unhinged. It’s a bravura set-piece of can-you-top-this audacity, leaving us to marvel at how quickly and efficiently Szifron has sketched these characters and their past lives before taking a wrecking ball to everything in a hysterical, hell-hath-no-fury frenzy. (This is the greatest movie wedding since Melancholia.)

And just when you thought I couldn’t possibly love this movie any more than I already did, Szifron sends us soaring out of the theatre with Bobby Womack’s cover of “Fly Me To The Moon.” Wild Tales is exhilarating.

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