My guess is that the oldest subject in literature isn’t love or war or the struggle for food and shelter. It’s revenge. Someone takes something from you, makes you feel small, and so you rise up and take it back, in righteousness and blood: survival of the most indignant. Cro-Magnons do it. Inuits do it. Even educated critics do it. The latest ones to do it are the characters in Wild Tales, an Oscar-nominated, six-story Argentine grab-bag written and directed by Damian Szifron and co-produced by Pedro Almodóvar. Here is revenge in six flavors, among them ghoulish comedy, gory macho farce, sociological tragedy, and feminist melodrama. Whatever the style, the point is blunt, reductive: Civilized humans can transform, in an instant, into blindingly destructive forces of nature. Not exactly an original thesis, but as a source of movie fodder, it’s scarily entertaining.
Szifron doesn’t so much tell these six stories as spring them on you, a gleeful sadist with a jack-in-box. His openings are misleadingly ordinary. In the brief pre-credits story (really a sketch), a young female model and an older, flirtatious male classical music critic make small talk on a plane. It’s hard to believe that anything savage can come from this sedate setting — that in just a few minutes, the audience will be screaming in disbelief. Sometimes there’s payback so fast.
With one key exception, Szifron does guy stories. Guyest of them all is the road-rage segment, in which a yuppie in an Audi tries to pass a pugnacious redneck and makes the mistake of asserting his automotive dominance. Down the road there’s vengeance, then vengeance for the vengeance, then more vengeance. The one-upmanship is absurd, but seriously absurd, with concomitant carnage, the violence juxtaposed with soothing music from the Audi’s stereo. What stings is that it’s only marginally exaggerated. People — well, men, for the most part — kill each other every day over slights this fucking stupid.
Not all the segments in Wild Tales kill, but even the most routine is instructive. It’s “Bombita,” the story of a demolitions expert (Ricardo Darin) who, in a few hours, goes from the peak of male mastery (he brings down an enormous building with casual grace) to utter impotence, chiefly the result of a seemingly omniscient and indefatigable towing company. The arc is predictable, the resolution simpleminded, but this is the purest of all the tales, the one that distills the mad-as-hell vigilante genre that has fueled American cinema since at least the days of Charles Bronson in Death Wish. And it certainly resonated in Argentina, where “going Bombita” has become the equivalent of our (in questionable taste) term “going postal.”
Two tales especially eat into the mind. The most sobering begins with a sniveling, drunken teenager who stumbles into his rich parents’ bedroom to say he has run over a woman. With discovery inevitable, the father and his high-priced attorney/fixer enter into a protracted series of negotiations to pay his longtime gardener to assume the blame, with the money going to the gardener’s needy children. The element of revenge comes late and gives the story its ghastly resolution, which wipes out complacency lingering from “Bombita.”
After that big downer, we’re hungry for fun, which comes in the final tale, the crowd-pleaser, the one that has launched an international star in Erica Rivas as Wild Tales’ lone female protagonist. She plays the dizzy Romina, the bride at a glitzy, disco-ball Jewish wedding who discovers — by deduction — that her husband has had an affair with a wowza co-worker who’s also a guest. It’s hard to call this a feminine-empowerment saga given that Rominia goes batshit crazy, but she’s certainly a whiz at employing every feminine weapon in her arsenal — her sexuality, her instinct for castrating (verbally) her mama’s-boy husband, and her mythic, Carrie-at-the-prom rage.
Wild Tales is smoothly made, its cast incredibly credible given the characters’ outlandish behavior. But the question hangs: Does Szifron deliver an overall judgment on our drive for revenge? The upshot here is sometimes nihilistic horror, sometimes tragic injustice, sometimes poetic justice. Sometimes the revenge actually breaks through the veneer of polite society and takes the revenger to a heightened level of awareness. So no, no verdict. Szifron’s basically out to give us a good time, larding one cathartic climax on top of another. The movie goes down easily — maybe too easily, like fast food.
But that easiness should tell us something about our eternal appetite for revenge sagas. According to the Bible (the Old and New Testament), “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” Filmmakers have specialized in catering to the part of us that answers, “Sorry, Lord. Only a wuss would wait that long.”