Revenge is one of the most popular themes in the movies, perhaps because it's one of the most popular fantasies in the world. It's been a common theme in storytelling of all sorts for a long time, but its popularity has grown exponentially in recent years – it seems like the protagonist of every blockbuster is intent on getting righteous payback of some sort (it's telling that many of cinema's most popular characters at the moment are part of a group called The Avengers). It comes in different flavors, too: paranoid (Taken), grimly dramatic (Prisoners), tragic (Munich), comic (The Other Woman), whatever we want to call Quentin Tarantino movies – hell, even the two most recent Star Trek films place themes of vengeance at their core.
What sets the Oscar-nominated Argentinian anthology film Wild Tales apart from other revenge movies is that it embraces elements of almost every sort of revenge movie. Depending on your perspective, its view of revenge is either multi-layered or muddled. Is revenge sweet? Yes. Is revenge unsatisfying? Yes. Is revenge horrifying? Yes. Is revenge hilarious? Yes. The movie embraces and cheerfully pokes holes in just about every take on the subject. So what is the lesson here? Revenge just IS.
Thankfully, Wild Tales is not a two-hour sermon, but a wicked entertainment. It offers six different revenge-themed stories, but it's more consistent than most anthology films – probably because the whole thing was written and directed by one person. Damian Szifron makes some interesting tonal shifts from segment to segment, but you begin to sense his distinctive voice in each and every one of them: a knack for nerve-jangling violence, a terrific sense of comic timing, a bold visual style and a penchant for playful melodrama (Pedro Almodovar is one of the film's producers, and his influence is certainly felt).
The individual segments run from good-to-great, and because each is relatively short (the longest is 30 minutes or so) and driven by diabolical twists, I can only say so much about them without spoiling the fun. The opening segment (which also happens to be the shortest segment) sets the tone effectively, allowing a genial conversation between a young woman and a rock critic to spiral into an absurdly entertaining series of coincidences that build to a killer visual punchline. It's an abbreviated version of the arc every story offers: a gradual transition from normal human behavior to something desperate and outlandish. It's alarmingly convincing every single time.
There's a fun deconstruction of macho posing in “The Strongest,” which sees a minor incident of road rage and ego ballooning into something far more serious. “The Rats” has fun exploring the fuzzy morality of revenge, presenting a series of contextual wrinkles that continually alter a woman's feelings about killing a man (though the ending is a bit of a fizzle). “Little Bomb” is a Falling Down-esque tale about a demolitions expert whose life begins unraveling after an unfortunate incident with a towing company. “The Proposal” plays like an episode of Better Call Saul, as a wealthy man and his cheerfully corrupt attorney attempt to concoct a cover story for the wealthy man's son in the wake of a hit-and-run incident. There are big laughs in all of these stories, in addition to moments that make you want to crawl beneath your seat. Like the best dark comedies, Wild Tales aces the cringe-to-laugh ratio.
The film makes the most of its assorted Argentinian settings - “The Strongest” in particular has the striking look of a rich neo-western. The cinematography is playful and inventive, and Gustavo Santaolalla brings an enjoyable Morricone-esque twang to his score (a handful of additional tunes – including a cleverly-employed piece from the Flashdance soundtrack and a terrific bit of R&B from Bobby Womack – work just as well). Szifron's pacing is consistently strong – the flick just moves, ensuring that you won't even think about the running time once things get going.
Szifron saves his best segment for last. “Until Death Do Us Part” offers the story of a bride (Erica Rivas) who learns an unpleasant truth about her groom (Diego Gentile) on their wedding day. What follows is a vivid, mortifying, hilarious demonstration of the old “hell hath no fury” maxim. The segment grows funnier and bleaker as it proceeds – you laugh because it's entertaining, but also to relieve the tension. Just when you think the sequence has reached its conclusion – the same sort of conclusion every previous installment has reached – Szifron tosses his winning card on the table. It's not only a great ending to “Until Death Do Us Part,” but a great ending for the entire thing – a cathartic, wordless closing statement which enriches everything that has preceded it. Bravo.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Year: 2014