BY BRUCE INGRAM | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
Revenge usually gets a bad rap in stories, with tsk-tsking morals asserting that it’s generally a bad idea — violence breeding more violence and that sort of thing.
And there’s certainly an element of disapproval in some of the six short films comprising “Wild Tales,” Argentine writer-director Damián Szifrón’s Oscar-nominated, mostly darkly comic anthology about payback in extremis. Not as much as you might expect, though. For the most part, these are stories we’re meant to relate to on one level or another. Stories about ordinary people pushed past the breaking point, who resort to raging, savage, uncivilized behavior and apparently find the experience deeply satisfying. Even when they are included in the collateral damage.
That’s clearly the case in “Bombita,” the story of a demolition engineer (Ricardo Darín of “The Secret in Their Eyes”) who reacts so explosively to unfair car-towing practices in Buenos Aires that he destroys his career and his marriage. Yet Argentina (where “Wild Tales” has become the biggest homegrown box-office champ ever) has adopted him as a fictional people’s hero and embraced “going Bombita” as the equivalent of our going postal.
The theme is even more evident in the comically harrowing finale “’Til Death Do Us Part,” which illustrates the old adage that hell hath no fury like a woman whose husband invites his mistress to their wedding. Szifrón pulls out all the mean-spirited stops in “’Til Death,” setting up a garish, overblown, artificially joyous wedding celebration just begging to be destroyed and proceeding to do so. And Érica Rivas turns in a star-making performance as the outraged bridezilla who rebounds from initial heartbreak to a rage that makes Medea seem meek by comparison.
There’s a sense of twisted exhilaration in “ ’Til Death” that makes it fun to watch, but there’s also something disturbing about it — a feeling that events are drifting dangerously, destructively, irreversibly out of control. And the rest of the stories in “Wild Tales” (“Savage Tales” would have been a more accurate but less marketable translation) emphasize those same elements in varying degrees and with varying success. In “Pasternak,” passengers on an airplane make the nervous discovery, mid-flight, that each of them has wronged the same man in the past. In “The Rats,” a diner waitress is egged on by a cook to wreak vengeance on a customer who ruined her life. In “The Deal,” a wealthy couple attempt to protect their son by paying a servant to take the rap for a hit-and-run killing. And in “Road to Hell” everyday road-rage rudeness escalates to all-out war as two drivers do their best to murder each other. But not without comic touches reminiscent of vintage slapstick and old Warner Bros. cartoons.
If everyone behaved the way the characters in “Wild Tales” behave, civilization would crumble. But the real take-away lesson here is how easy it might be for any of us, swept up in a moment of bloodlust, to consider pure raging hostility a fair trade.
Bruce Ingram is a local freelance writer.
Sony Pictures Classics presents a film written and directed by Damián Szifrón. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 122 minutes. Rated R (for violence, language and brief sexuality). Opening Friday at local theaters.