There are few subjects in storytelling as viscerally satisfying as revenge. A well told tale of vengeance will almost always tap into something primal in even the most sophisticated of viewers/readers, rarefied intellectual inclinations be damned. We’re all human. We’ve all been wronged by someone, had something unfairly taken from us, struggled to get over defeats and humiliations large and small. As “civilized” individuals bound by legal and ethical systems, we may fantasise idly about getting our own back but we’ll rarely go so far as to enact those fantasies. But that doesn’t stop us from cheering when someone gets what’s coming to them in spectacular fashion whether in real life or in fiction. This universal weakness was exploited last year to great effect by Argentine writer-director Damian Szifron and producer Pedro Almodovar in Wild Tales, an Oscar-nominated anthology film that presents six short stories about revenge in various cruel yet (mostly) hilarious manifestations. They run the gamut in terms of genre, skipping from action thriller to social satire to melodrama but are all equally barbed, featuring third act escalations and twists worthy of O Henry or EC Comics at their most perverse.
Most of the stories focus on men and in none too complimentary a fashion. In the highly entertaining road rage segment, a rich yuppie in a shiny Audi overtakes a brutish redneck in a dirty truck on an otherwise deserted highway, yelling abuse at him as he does so. Unfortunately for the former, a flat tire strands him on the side of the road soon after, leaving him vulnerable to the creative retribution of the latter. Drowning in testosterone, neither man wants to give way to the other, their interactions graduating quickly from manly posturing to increasingly over-the-top and violent contests of one-upmanship that their insecurities keep escalating.
The engineer protagonist of another blackly comic segment is also tripped up by the expectations imposed on him by a macho culture. Starting the story off in a position of supreme control — orchestrating the demolition of a condemned building — his life unravels in a matter of days, thanks to the oppressive effects of obscure parking laws and an implacable towing company. It’s not long before his rage takes on an explosive dimension. The segment is a sardonic consideration of the extreme reactions men are often prone to when confronted with impotence literal or metaphorical and its comedic aspect is undercut only by the sobering realization that the engineer’s downward spiral is an echo of numerous real life incidents. That said, it differs from the road rage short in that there’s an element of sympathy here for the beleaguered protagonist. Few of us would fail to identify with the engineer’s frustration in the face of a byzantine bureaucracy, counter-intuitive laws and government complacency. Szifron demonstrates a measure of affection for the engineer, an attitude he does not extend to the disagreeable protagonists of the road rage story.
Most memorable and particularly cringe-inducing is the final segment. It shifts gears to a female point of view, focusing on a bride who discovers during her wedding reception that the groom has been cheating on her with a gorgeous co-worker (who is also a guest). The first few minutes nail that anxious air of strictly enforced gaiety unique to weddings then gives way rapidly to the fascinated horror that I assume is just as unique to witnessing one devolve into disaster and chaos. Upon discovering her new husband’s indiscretions, the bride turns into a vengeful hellion reminiscent of Carrie at that fateful prom. Fury personified, she deploys every tool in her arsenal—from her sexuality to her sharp tongue—to bring the groom low. Szifron understands the essential contradiction of wedding celebrations as the ultimate embodiments of romantic optimism that also happen to be hyper-idealized and laughably unrealistic representations of what it’s really like to be married or in love. It’s that line between the ideal and the reality that he and fantastic lead actress Erica Rivas literalize (and practically weaponize) to cutting satirical effect. Intriguingly though, the segment ends on a note of tentative positivity, suggesting that for all the near-nihilistic cynicism evident in Wild Tales, Szifron retains a measure of faith in humanity’s ability to staunch the psychic wounds left by even the gravest transgressions. His is not the most generous view of human nature. The film implies that given the right circumstances, each one of us could devolve instantly into demonic embodiments of (self-) righteous rage. But, in the end, it also seems to say that maybe it’s part of what keeps our species ticking over. Whatever your interpretation of Szifron’s deeper intentions, however, it’s impossible to deny the energy and inventiveness of his film. Each story and its attendant nasty surprises feel like a tactical ambush intended for us, the masochistic viewers, sating our endless appetite for retributive ‘justice’. For all its sadism, Wild Tales is a great time.