Wild Tales – Damian Szifron (2015)

Ah, a refreshingly easy review to write. Why is that? Because Wild Tales is a miserable, horrible film, and enumerating its failings should be fairly easy. Nominally, this is a dark comedy, and one would think that having Almodovar as one of its producers would guarantee some quality, not to say some levity. Oh well. Like many film comedies of yore, this is an anthology. There are six tales in all, but sadly most of them are not short, and, stupidly on the part of the director, they decrease in interest, and increase in bitterness and bile, as the film unfolds. The set starts off in a fairly strong, if not terribly funny, manner – a group of air travelers happen to discover, by chance, that they are all personally familiar with one Pasternak, a failed musician who is also the pilot of the airplane they are traveling on. He has gathered all of them together on this flight with free tickets, only to nosedive the plane into his childhood home, killing all aboard and his parents for good measure. (The shot of the plane nose-diving into the backyard ends in a freeze-frame of the parents flinching and turning away from the oncoming impact, at which point the title credits roll). If you don’t find such a scenario particularly funny, I don’t blame you; like much of this film, there is potential in the concept, but the execution is quite lacking. The title sequence consists of a series of images of wildlife, all looking distinctly human and stately, and we already get what there is to get – the human animal is the most savage, degenerate, and “wild” of all. The following two segments are both the shortest and the most visually imaginative, and what humor there is comes primarily from this fact. In the second story, a waitress has revenge taken for her on a mobster who destroyed her family. In the third, the strongest by my lights, an incident of road rage leads to a confrontation between drivers, one urban and one rural, that escalates to an ultra-violently absurd fight to the death. The matter of fact way that the violence escalates in these two tales is partly what makes them succeed as far as they do; the sketchiness of the characters is also a boon, as we can view them as commentaries on humanity in general, types rather than specific people. If the rest of the film had stuck to such a structure, and kept the stories within the 15-20 minute mark, perhaps it would have been palatable.

The temporal bulk of the film, though, is held in the last three tales, which revel in man’s cynicism while also being unimaginative, unbelievable, and pointlessly elaborated in the extreme. The third story is a kind of Falling Down parody, in which a demolitions engineer becomes the last righteous man, slowly disillusioned with the State, and hence Society, as his car continually gets towed. He eventually resorts to violence to get his revenge, blowing up his car and half the cars in the impound lot, by way of protest. While this lands him in prison, somehow it also makes him a hero not only to his countrymen, but to his estranged family as well. In the fourth story, the most unappealing, a rich young man accidentally hits and kills a pregnant woman while driving drunk; he returns home, and his father manages to convince the loyal groundskeeper to take the fall, in exchange for a large sum of money. The bulk of the story involves the various included parties (the rich man’s lawyer, the state prosecutor, and the groundskeeper) all wrangling for larger bites of this poisoned apple, in a supposed commentary on the pervasiveness of corruption and the abilities of the rich to avoid comeuppance (tell us something we don’t know). After half an hour of painfully drawn out, unfunny haggling, all parties emerge satisfied, and, in an ending that makes O. Henry look like Henry James, the groundskeeper, while being led to the waiting police car, gets brained to death by the dead woman’s hammer-wielding husband. (By this point, no one in the audience had laughed for a good 45 minutes, and several people gasped or groaned). Finally, as a nice little cherry on top, we have a story cataloging the horrors of matrimony between two newlyweds at their wedding reception. Wifey discovers that her new husband has been cheating, so she causes a major scene, then absconds to the roof of the building, where she is counseled by a “kindhearted” and “wise” chef, who she then proceeds to screw atop an air conditioning unit. When found by her husband, who promptly vomits, she is returned to the reception, only to proceed to (surprise, surprise) wreak violence on her husband’s fling, sending the party into a degenerative tailspin. In what is supposed to redeem the segment, and the film, I suppose, this emotional and physical bloodletting is the spark that reconnects husband and wife, who, aroused by all this unconventional honesty, go at it in the middle of the reception hall, as the remaining guests flee in horror. The problem with this film is that there is no nuance and no humanity to any of these characters – this works fine when they are mere sketches or types, but once the director uses them as conduits to “say” something, it becomes obvious he has no ideas except that humans are venal, petty, and consistently so. His few attempts at social commentary, as with the reversal at the end of story three, fall flat, as the narrative moves are unbelievable and contrived in the extreme while also being, once we know the gambit, completely predictable. It would be bad enough if this filmmaker were simply telling us what we already know, but the fact is, we don’t believe him for a second, and by trying to make his characters more “real,” deeper and fully fleshed, he actually undercuts his efforts, making the film incredibly grim and unsavory while increasing the pointlessness. As a clutch of conceptual set pieces, the film might have had promise, as we can imagine how similar scenarios might have worked in the hands of Bunuel or Almodovar. Those directors, though, actually love people, in all their venality, and relish the absurdity with which the human animal pursues its bagatelles as if they were grand endeavors. Szifron has a viable first spark of a scenario, and then not a clue of how to develop it into something that actually reveals truth, being instead rather content to simply smack his lips at the tastiness of his bland cliches. One gets the feeling that he is the only one laughing at these tales from the dark side; sadly for him, the scenario of such a self-satisfied director gleefully and blindly reveling in such stupidity would more likely be the subject of parody by the likes of a Bunuel than these sad, sordid, sour little nothings.

One star out of five

Jauja – Lisandro Alonso (2014)

Jauja introduced me to a director I must admit I was ignorant of, although he has directed four other features; the film was entered in Cannes this past year, which is what brought it to my attention. Set in Patagonia, at the turn of the century (or perhaps before, the date is unclear), the film features stunning imagery and restrained performances, most startlingly from Viggo Mortensen, who speaks his patrimonial tongue throughout. A kind of existential western, Jauja concerns Mortensen’s journey, as a cartographer traveling with an army detachment, to locate his runaway adolescent daughter. The film begins with dreamy vibes and only grows stranger, more spare and more hallucinatory, as the saga unfolds. That said, Alonso is known for low-key storytelling and the use of non-actors, so this is emphatically not hallucinatory in the acid western stylings of Robert Downey’s Greaser’s Palace or even Jodorowsky’s El Topo. Rather, the film, by the end, reminded me very much of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir’s masterpiece from the late 70s. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t, but I will say that the film, which I felt was going in disappointing directions by the three-quarter mark, turns around in the finish; indeed, the ending, as the best endings do, forces you to reevaluate all that has come before, and opens up a poetic dimension unimagined until that point.

Three and a half stars out of five