In These Six 'Wild Tales,' Humans Morph Into Destructive Forces Of Nature

Feb 20, 2015
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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

One of this year's Academy Awards nominees for best foreign language film is "Wild Tales," an Argentinian film containing six short stories. It was co-produced by filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: I'm guessing that the oldest subject in literature isn't love or war or the struggle for survival, but revenge. Someone takes something from you, makes you feel small, and you take it back in righteousness and blood. Now comes a frequently marvelous six-part movie from Argentina called "Wild Tales" that stares hard at the subject from different angles, among them ghoulish comedy, social tragedy, gory macho force and feminist melodrama. In Spanish, the title is "Relatos Salvajes" - savage tales. But under either name, the takeaway is clear - ultra-civilized humans can turn in an instant into blindingly destructive forces of nature.

The writer-director, Damian Szifron, doesn't so much tell these stories as spring them on you, like jack-in-the-boxes, as in the brief pre-credit story, in which a young female model, an older, flirtatious male classical music critic make small talk on a plane. It's hard to believe that anything savage can come from this sedate, humdrum setting, that in a few minutes the audience will be screaming in disbelief.

Another tale of a yuppie in his fancy Audi who gets into a road-rage duel with a man in a pickup that's familiar in its thrust and its boys-will-be-boys silliness. But the way the one-upmanship escalates, juxtaposed with soothing music from the Audi stereo, has a logic that makes you both appalled and fascinated. People - well, men for the most part - kill each other every day over slights this stupid.

I wasn't as surprised by a middle story, in which a demolitions engineer begins, on a note of mastery, artfully bringing down an enormous building and is, therefore, relentlessly emasculated, chiefly by an indefatigable towing company. But this is the purest tale, the one that distills the mad-as-hell vigilante genre that's fueled American cinema since at least the days of Charles Bronson in "Death Wish." This man's reclaiming a power with dynamite is a satisfying but simpleminded end.

Two other savage tales especially linger in the mind. The most sobering begins with a rich, drunk teenager who stumbles sniveling into his parents' bedroom to say he's run over a woman. With discovery inevitable, the father and his high-priced attorney/fixer enter into a series of negotiations to pay his longtime gardener to take the blame, the money going to the gardener's impoverished family. The revenge thread comes late and the story has a sting in its tail. The effect is to rupture our sense of complacency after the previous story where dynamite solves everything.

The final tale, Til Death Do Us Part, is the big crowd-pleaser, the one that's launched a new international star in Erica Rivas as the movie's only female protagonist. She's Romina, the bride at a glitzy, disco-ball Jewish wedding, who discovers, by deduction, that her husband has had an affair with a gorgeous co-worker, who's also a guest. Given Romina's total loss of control, I wouldn't call the subsequent frenzy a female empowerment saga. But she uses tools in her feminine arsenal - her sexuality, her ability to reduce her mama's boy husband to a sobbing, puking wreck and her Carrie-at-the-prom-like fury.

The movie is jam-packed with the lights, one catharsis after the next, enacted by a cast that is - given the general outlandishness - incredibly credible. I wouldn't call any of "Wild Tales'" tales profound. Apart from the one about the rich people and the gardener, they go down too easily. They're fast food. But maybe that easiness is what's profound. It's written in the Bible, vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. But with cleverness and style, director Damian Szifron sums up humans' response since time immemorial. Sorry, Lord, only chumps wait for that.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine, and he'll be live-blogging the Academy Awards this Sunday at vulture.com.

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DAVIES: On Monday's show, I'll be speaking with Native American writer David Treuer. His new novel, "Prudence," is set in the 1940s on a Native American reservation in Minnesota where the government's built a camp for German prisoners of war. He'll talk about the book, his family and his own life on the reservation. Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.