THE TRANSLATION OF Damián Szifrón’s “Wild Tales” from the Spanish (“Relatos Salvajes”) fails to convey the underlying absurdist savagery of these six enormously funny tales of revenge. (Perhaps “Tales of Savagery”?) They’re a cock-eyed view of how ‘ordinary’ people act once something has pushed them over the boundary of moral restraint. Here’s a view of humanity when humanity has slipped away to be replaced by the savage animal within us all (indeed, the movie begins with images of predators).
The structure of the tales is all the same: we’re introduced to a story that on the surface couldn’t be more uneventful: a bored driver is bombing along a mainly empty back road listening to his radio; on a flight to who knows where, a music critic leans over and engages his fellow traveller in conversation; a waitress greets a traveller who runs in to an empty diner from the rain; a loving couple are in the midst of their happy, boisterous wedding ceremony; distraught parents scramble to protect their son from a hit and run crime (OK. That isn’t so uneventful. Maybe it’s more commonplace in Argentina), a man’s car is towed away by the local council.
Quickly into each story, the seeds of disaster are sown. The driver has to force his way around an aggressive road hog and curses him as he does so, only to have a flat a few miles further on to disastrous consequences; the air passengers slowly realize that they are all connected to one person: the captain; the waitress recognizes the man who has rushed in from the storm as a local gangster, the blushing bride realizes that her husband is either having or may have had an affair with one of the guests etc.
Quickly the world of restraint and social decorum is torn away by rages of jealousy, feelings of insult, frustration, greed, the desire to get even after a life of emotional abuse and – hysterial – disasters follow. These are stories of revenge played out to wild extremes…and just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, they do.
It’s Scheherazade storytelling: we’re absolutely held in the spell of master storyteller Szifrón, who pulls off his tales without a false note. For despite the wildly bizarre turn of events in each of the stories, the dialog and actions and interactions between the protagonists are all minutely, carefully observed, entirely credible moments. Szifrón so seduces us into siding with each of the protagonists that for a moment we too slip into the delirium of savagery, egging on the protagonists to do what they’re doing: sprinkle the rat poison, push the car over the precipice, wreck havoc on the philanderer etc.
And none of these protagonists are particularly nice people. This isn’t a case of good men driven to desperation…which drifts into the structure of a morality tale. Rather these stories are of people who are flawed anyway; all they needed was a simple push, and their flaws, barely contained and concealed by some sort of moral law, becomes the law of the jungle.
What works is that even as the stories descend into chaos and farce, the world of “Wild Tales” remains emotionally grounded in the everyday. They have the textural solidity and normality of some of Stephen King’s best works. Indeed, were King ever to veer away from the macabre to comedy, this is the sort of stuff he’d write.
And that’s pretty high praise.