Anthology films, by their very nature, suggest a mixed bag of experience, perspective and, sometimes, even thematic concern, and their history is, like the form itself, all over the place. Alberto Cavalcanti’s Dead of Night (1945) helped cement the anthology approach as a tradition of the horror genre, and the British production company Amicus continually utilized the form for a series of horror pictures, most notably the EC Comics-inspired Tales from the Crypt (1972). Anthologies comprised essentially of individual short films directed by different filmmakers, like Paris je t’aime, Four Rooms or New York Stories, might vary wildly in tone and even quality of storytelling, jerking the audience out of the narrative spell of the previous episode only to have to start the process of seducing our sensibilities all over again. But, like Cavalcanti, directors like Julien Duvivier (Tales of Manhattan, Flesh and Fantasy), Jim Jarmusch (Night on Earth) and, perhaps most gloriously, Roberto Rossellini (Paisan) all had success applying a consistent, distinctive personality to their own omnibus films, whether working from stories of their own or, in Duvivier’s case, working from pre-existing stories from Oscar Wilde or Mexican novelist Francisco Rojas Gonzalez that were adapted by the likes of Ben Hecht, Ferenc Molnar and Donald Ogden Stewart.
And so it is with writer-director Damian Szifron’s Wild Tales, an electrifying black comedy consisting of six stories constructed around themes of revenge and how that singular emotional impulse can often escalate out of control, far beyond its original intent or perhaps to its own morbidly logical ends. Each one of these stories is tipped in the sort of poison that inspires ferocious, convulsive laughter to accompany the portraits of crumbling societal pretense and bureaucratic black holes in which the characters find themselves ensnared. (The film’s original title, Relatos salvajes, or Savage Tales, cuts closer to the movie’s arsenic-laced appeal.)
Szifron brings a sardonic, almost De Palma-esque delight to both his storytelling and his filmmaking style, and in the majority of the stories he manages the seemingly impossible feat of acknowledging the strange dignity of human behavior even as the worst of circumstances reveal themselves and then proceed gather even more sinister momentum. (There’s only one episode in which the director cedes entirely to the blackness, and it’s brutal in its abruptness.) Some have found the points with which Szifron is engaged somewhat reductive—is that all there is? But I found the experience of watching all hell breaking loose while these desperate destinies are fulfilled, while even some measure of vengeance (most definitely not the Lord’s here) is achieved, plenty rich enough in irony, pitch-black farce and genuine comic exhilaration.
If you’re interested in seeing Wild Tales, and you should be—it’s one of the best movies of last year– the first thing you’ll need to do is avoid any reviews or articles that tend to be of the plot-regurgitation variety. The movie’s pleasures are not entirely rooted in plot surprises—the performances are uniformly sharp and often surprising, and Szifron’s command of filmmaking technique made me gasp with pleasure more than once. But this is definitely one of those cases where ignorance, while not in itself bliss, certainly leads to an increasingly heightened sense of astonishment as the six wild tales unfold. Writing about the movie in anything but the vaguest terms, in order to preserve the freshness of discovery for those who haven’t yet seen it, is a worthy challenge, so I’ll try to remain suggestive. However, if someone you know has seen Wild Tales and starts recalling any of the stories in detail, just walk away. (You may also want to set this piece aside until you’ve seen the movie, though I promise I won’t give away anything other than the simplest outline of what goes on when the lights go down.)
The movie’s opening salvo, “Pasternak,” sets the mood in a nearly shorthand fashion—a chance meeting on board a passenger jet between a fashion model and the music critic who once savaged her ex-boyfriend’s talent as a composer leads to a shocking roundelay of coincidence that soon reveals itself to be of a most sinister design.
In “The Rats,” there’s another chance encounter, this one in a roadside diner on the night shift, when a waitress recognizes the eatery’s lone patron as the gangster who drove her father to suicide. She attempts to take the high road, enduring his rude behavior, but she nurses a load of fury and resentment, and she makes the mistake of explaining the situation to the cook, who has a much more hardened, pragmatic approach to dealing with this especially tough customer.
Szifron nods in the direction of both EC Comics and Steven Spielberg in the third episode, “Road to Hell,” which might best be described as Duel’s road rage taken to its most gruesomely hilarious extreme. A driver zooms down on a lonely stretch of highway in his spiffy sports car, passing a slow-moving, beat-up car and firing off an onslaught of insults in the process. Wouldn’t you know, soon afterward the sports car’s rear tire goes flat and, right on cue, introduced by an ominous swirl of desert dust, the battered car pulls into view, just the sort of roadside assistance this driver would rather do without. Expanding on the theme of class friction only hinted at in the previous episode, “Road to Hell” spirals into a mini-apocalypse of ever-worsening tit-for-tat behavior, ending with a jab-to-the-sternum punch line that probably had the aforementioned De Palma apoplectic with envy.
In Wild Tales’ second half, the stories move beyond the relative straightforwardness of the first three episodes and into a more complex realm of social satire and psychology, building from passive-aggressive resolution to the glorious release of righteous anger. “Bombita” tells the story of a demolitions engineer who stops on his way home to pick up his daughter’s birthday cake, setting off a chain of outrages which result in his becoming an urban folk hero pitted against the absurdly immovable forces of bureaucratic pettiness. And in “The Deal,” rich parents are awakened one night to learn their teenage son has killed a pregnant woman with his car. In a desperate move to save his son, who wants to confess, the father and his lawyer concoct a plan in which the father’s impoverished gardener will be paid half a million dollars to take the rap and go to prison in the boy’s stead. But then the lawyer demands a fee of his own, and so does the prosecutor, who smells something fishy about the gardener’s made-up account from the beginning, to say nothing of the gardener who, inspired by all the wheeling and dealing, decides his own deal isn’t quite sweet enough…
Most anthology films, regardless of how uneven the rest of the stories might be, often save the best and most outrageous for last, and this is certainly Szifron’s strategy. But the neutron bomb that explodes during the wedding reception at the heart of “Till Death Do Us Part” feels like a fulfillment of the sensibility guiding the whole of Wild Tales as much as its “Can-you top-this?/No-you-can’t” conclusion. The episode begins where many tales of movie romance end—the wedding— where all seems blissful and full of hope, until the bride, who we initially read as somewhat mousy, realizes that her husband has cheated on her with one of the wedding guests. Sobbing and devastated, she flees the party and considers flinging herself off the roof. But she soon embraces the prospect of harnessing her rage, and it isn’t long before the wandering groom is gnashing his teeth in a spectacular parade of humiliation staged in front of, and with the participation of the remaining wedding guests.
What’s perhaps most surprising about “Till Death Do Us Part,” and Wild Tales on the whole, is the strange leveling of the playing field upon which marital bliss, or the very act of revenge itself in all its permutations here, can be realized. The movie’s funniest joke is perhaps the degree, despite the various levels of devastation and ruin and even charred flesh and bone, to which these characters have all achieved their meager, often excruciatingly bitter aims.
There is no surprise, however, that Oscar voters would reward the somber, black-and-white, self-serious Ida over a movie as vicious and alive as Wild Tales. It’s too nasty, too much fun for official Academy sanctification, just like many terrific films in the past have also been. Forget Best Foreign Film—Wild Tales is one of the best films of 2014, period.
And before I go, speaking of last year…
Many might assume that the Oscars are positioned as the last word on the previous movie year. Certainly by the time the Academy gets around to its little soiree, we’ve all had our fill of having the movie year boiled down to the usual suspects of least objectionable programming and then force-fed to us as if those chosen few were truly representative of everything the year had to offer. But there is another awards ceremony which just this week concluded its two-week long overview of 2014 that I would encourage you to take a look at.
In 2006, film writers/enthusiasts Steven Carlson and Paul Clark sketched out the template for what would become known as The Muriel Awards, so named after Clark’s beloved, now-deceased guinea pig. (Why not, I say? Why not?!) Carlson and Clark intended their awards to be a way of recognizing noteworthy achievements from the previous year in cinema without concern for heavily funded publicity campaigns, influence of other critics groups, or any other award-season hype. They would assemble a ragtag scattering of cinephiles from all reaches of the World Wide Web and solicit their choices by ballot for the usual categories (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay), but also for some rather more unusual, difficult to pin down categories such as Best Ensemble, Best Cinematic Moment, Best First Feature and Best Breakthrough Performance of the Year. In later years, anniversary awards recognizing the best films from 10, 25 and 50 years previous to any given year were initiated, making the Muriels about remembering and appreciating the past as well as honoring the present.
Carlson and Clark roll out the awards over roughly two weeks, each one accompanied by an essay by one of those cinephile recruits, so one anticipates the Muriel winner in each category for the winner itself but also the keen bit of observation that will come along with it, from exceptionally talented writers such as Simon Abrams, Andrew Bemis, Kent M. Beeson, Christianne Benedict, Chuck Bowen, Sean Burns, Jim Emerson, Kenji Fujishima, Craig Kennedy, Peter Labuza, Craig D. Lindsey, Jeff McMahon, Philip Dyess-Nugent, Adam Ross, Scott von Doviak and a whole slew of others you may or may not have heard of. And that number includes me, a member of the original band recruited for the first awards back in 2006. This year, among the multitude of pieces on movies that Oscar forgot, you’ll find short Muriel essays from me on Under the Skin’s exceptional cinematography, by Daniel Landin, and the criminally ignored performance of Timothy Spall as British painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner.
But there’s so much more than just those essays in Clark and Carlson’s compilation of the best of the movie year past. If you’re like me, one click over to the Muriel’s site, Our Science is Too Tight, and you’ll be hooked on the whole Muriel vibe. And there’s now nine years of archives to be unearthed, a finer distraction from life’s more pressing responsibilities you are unlikely to find. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! And thanks to Paul and Steven for the herculean effort to coordinate the Muriels year in and year out. Next year is Muriel’s 10th anniversary, so stay tuned.