Wild Tales (2014) Review: AFI Film Fest

Wild Tales Cover

In a post-WILD TALES Q&A, Argentinian director Damian Szifron said the thematic connection tying his varied and terrific vignettes together is “the pleasure of losing control.” While building his film around such a feeling, Szifron had to have hoped it would be a pleasure to watch these characters lose control as well.

And it is. In so many cringe-worthy, uproarious, and surprisingly insightful ways, WILD TALES is an absolute pleasure.

There’s a certain catharsis that comes from watching others do things we, as mere mortals, removed from story and screen, would only dream of. Sometimes it’s watching superheroes save the world. Sometimes it’s watching a group of sexy, 30-year-old “high-schoolers” get slaughtered in the woods. And sometimes, as in this fantastic anthology, it’s watching people wrestle with the world and rules around them.

Wild Tales

There’s no recurring characters or settings in WILD TALES, and although themes occasionally overlap every short manages to be a unique blast of adrenaline. The fact that each is no longer than 15 minutes (give or take) necessitates time being spent on exploration rather than introduction. Each story is set up quickly, efficiently, with a character boarding a plane, entering a secluded diner, or coming home in tears. What follows is an effort to simplify the rules of society and let base, almost animal instincts roam free.

It’s not a huge leap to say that WILD TALES reduces humanity to an animalistic level. There’s obviously the title, but even the opening credits are made up of images of animals, cut in time to the music. They come in all shapes and sizes, just like humanity. And also like the humanity, their movements are dictated by the music, erasing the independence and agency that we’re supposed to enjoy. But we’ve conquered the world, right? We’ve proved our independence, our agency, our advancement.

Yes, but one could argue, and without much difficulty, that we’re still living in a dog-eat-dog world where those born with bigger teeth, faster legs, or more money inevitably wind up on top.

Wild Tales Wedding

WILD TALES revels in exposing this fact. For the film, reducing humanity to an animal level isn’t insulting or nihilistic; it simply levels the playing field. Each vignette lets a character loose to tackle society’s façade head on, freed by their lack of inhibitions and willingness to act with pure emotional clarity. In my experience, we act most like animals when we’re placed in stressful or otherwise compromising situations. We’re familiar with the fight or flight response, sure, but what about the “I just found out my husband had an affair” response? What does society say we can do and how is this fundamentally opposed to what we’d really like to do?

For me, one of the film’s most interesting aspects was how it experimented with humans in both isolation and in public. Half of the six shorts deal with characters acting out because no one (or very few people) are watching and the other half deal with revenge and agitation in the public sphere. Szifron’s understanding of humanity is clear in both varieties – there’s a pure sense of honesty with each, in the way we behave when we don’t think anyone will know and in the way we bottle up our rage and frustration when it’s much healthier (and entertaining) to explode.

Wild Tales Car

Another testament to Szifron’s skill as a director is how well he handles the tone of these cautionary tales. Whereas the more natural (and perhaps even animalistic) approach would be to yell and scream at the audience, the six shorts act more as tall tales. Characters exist only for brief moments, but their actions are impressively nuanced as they alternate between complacency and outbursts. He trusts the audience to connect with the stories on an emotional level, which is easy to do with so much humor and drama on display.

Aside from the film’s rage against Argentinian society, the only other consistency is how well executed each short is. The acting is great across the board and situations play out to their own individual rhythm, often without any music guiding our emotions. The film was produced by Pedro Almodovar and exists in the same world and is handled with the same deft touch as many of his films. A scene with two men exchanging increasing bouts of road rage plays out like a beautiful ballet of pride and stupidity. A character viewing the charred, shit-covered aftermath can only conclude that it was a crime of passion, which is absolutely true. The screen is flooded with absurdity, but every action is played so naturally that it forces us to make our own conclusions. WILD TALES doesn’t even ask us to be better, kinder people, because the target is constantly moving.

WILD TALES is full of passion, and it’s clearly a work of passion as well. Damian Szifron has a bone to pick with the world, and his fast, frenzied, truly remarkable anthology doesn’t pull any punches. Instead of ordering the audience around, the film matches the world’s absurdity beat for beat allowing us to revel in how wonderful it would be to lose control. There are clear rules to the animal kingdom, but the rules of society, particularly Argentinian society with its apparent corruption and wealth gaps, are impossible to navigate. So why bother? Why not let loose instead?

A great place to start is with this particular wild tale.

Wild Tales Plane

Wild Tales Diner

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