★★★★ out of four stars
When I compile the definitive “best list” of this decade’s breathtaking films, the unconventional “Wild Tales” will rank near the top.
Have you ever imagined a crazy payback scheme for one of the frustrations of daily life? This cheerfully violent stack of dynamite brings your dreams onscreen, rebounding from macabre panic to delicious lunacy. It’s a kind of Q. Tarantino meets O. Henry farce, with big passions, big hatreds and absurdity squirting as fast as blood. It slays.
Argentine writer/director Damián Szifrón’s revenge saga initially recalls caper comedies that tend to lose steam before the third act. That isn’t the case here. In this episodic six-stage fantasy, Szifrón creates something entirely new. Bouncing among unpredictable plot twists and deliberate incongruities, each entry feels fresh; they’re not all happening in the same ZIP code. One episode is fueled by matrimonial jealousy, others by class bigotry, road rage, political corruption, being taken to the cleaners by venal professionals, or endless bureaucratic red tape. Anything appearing formulaic conceals a bombshell or several.
Some stories happen amid urban darkness, others in remote west-Argentine sunlight that seems to spill out of the frame. The only commonality is Gustavo Santaolalla’s sublime soundtrack. Each chapter has its own visually ravishing setting and social structure. Some open in moments of pure happiness or bourgeois calm, or heart-clutching drama that seems to steer the film in an entirely new direction. Then the mood and tempo escalate into an uncontrolled frenzy where any man or woman, rich or poor, becomes a Mad Max on a quest for justice — and vengeance. Of course, things go drastically wrong.
Szifrón’s high-wire juggling act infuses the similar yet different plots with spontaneous surprise. One of the most enjoyable aspects of “Wild Tales” is the way in which the story unfolds, with turns both expected and unanticipated enhancing the comic flavor. To the final coup de grâce, the movie manages to be unpredictable, never losing its sense of humor.
This is the kind of outlandish film where an airline trip to a summer vacation can take the passengers somewhere much, much hotter and more eternal. Leonardo Sbaraglia plays a slick yuppie snob who thinks driving an Audi lets him control the highway. Erica Rivas shines as a bride whose ultra-luxurious wedding comes to pieces when she eyes her husband’s gorgeous, flirtatious employee. The incomparable Ricardo Darin (“The Secret in Their Eyes”) appears as a demolitions engineer whose mental reason is knocked down by the regulations of the motor vehicles department. With so many star turns, you’re sorry to see even the worst of the bad guys go down.
The film’s allusions to Argentine society aren’t window dressing. Some of its darkest jokes reflect the country through the prism of mocking social criticism. What makes the film transcend its hall of distorting mirrors? It makes absurdist sense in any country that needs to laugh its way through pain and evil, which is all of them.
Stunners like “Birdman,” “Gravity,” “Blancanieves” and “Children of Men” prove that the top Spanish-language filmmakers are matchless at blending the gut-busting and gut-wrenching. “Wild Tales” establishes Szifrón among the best of them.