Although it was shot in Argentina, partially bankrolled in Spain (by Pedro Almodóvar’s company), given its premiere at Cannes and then shortlisted for the Oscars, the true mark of the internationalism of Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales is that it bears the artistic stamp of Quentin Tarantino. Many other films destined for US art houses display comparably global credentials, but Wild Tales is exceptional for the brio with which it imitates a style that is already proudly imitative—and as accepted worldwide as the American Express card.
You will immediately recognize the genre-movie settings (a cheap roadside diner in the rain, a lonely stretch of mountain highway), the pop-archivist musical choices (Giorgio Moroder’s Flashdance soundtrack, Bobby Womack’s cover of “Fly Me to the Moon”), the frequent pauses to let you admire a graphic effect (an off-kilter close-up, a character framed by a window), and the teasing, discontinuous narrative (which gives you six stories for the price of your ticket).
Above all, note the ratio of laughter to mayhem, which remains high in Wild Tales despite the continually mounting pile of corpses. The body count is already incalculable by the end of the first story, which comes to a boomingly funny climax before Szifron even rolls the opening credits, with their spaghetti-western theme music. After that, the pace of killing slackens, though not the gaudiness of execution; and then gradually, in keeping with the Tarantino sensibility, a few characters elevate the moral tone of the proceedings by refraining from murder. Paramedics are standing by in the film’s final story, shattered glass and bloody bandages are strewn everywhere, and a large knife lies ready to hand—yet the last of the main characters choose to abjure violence and move society forward. Instead of slaughtering one another, they rut like animals in full public view.
That’s a sweet moment, actually—which, in its faith in the redemptive potential of sex, is perhaps Szifron’s one true point of contact with Almodóvar (other than the Spanish language), as well as his principal point of departure from orthodox Tarantinoism. The master of Jackie Brown might believe in romantic love, at least as a plot device, but he rarely shows an interest in what people really do with their flesh. Szifron, by contrast, begins Wild Tales by indulging in a long moment of flirtation (this is before all hell breaks loose) and ends the film with a frisky consummation. The kiss-kiss business is cheerfully uncomplicated, though, compared with Almodóvar’s—Szifron lacks his producer’s affinity for melancholy, melodrama and the polymorphously perverse—and so accords well with the overall mood of jocular bang-bang.
I’m all for it. The worst I can say about Wild Tales is that, despite the gore and wreckage that Szifron scatters on all sides, he keeps his plots overly tidy. A demolition expert in Buenos Aires (played by the great Ricardo Darín) gets fed up with receiving parking tickets; a sleek, arrogant guy in an Audi brings out the road rage in a tough guy driving a wreck. Setups like these are their own spoiler alerts, telling you exactly where the stories are headed. But you will not be likely to predict the details that Szifron, in his exuberance, invents along the route.