Oscar Best Foreign Language film nominee Wild Tales, directed by Argentine filmmaker Damián Szifron, is an anthology of six short films tackling the topic of revenge. The shorts, beginning with a short pre-credit sequence that sets the tone of sadistic retribution that carries throughout the film, each follow a structure of a seemingly normal situation going as far awry as you could possibly imagine. The craziness is triggered by violence, anger, retaliation, and personal slights big and small that turn situations on their heads and drive them to the most absurd realistic conclusion. The pieces end up bloody, gory, tragic, explosive, but always in the service of a laugh. It is a fantastically unique way to go about creating a comedy and a way that goes often unseen in American filmmaking.
Dark comedies use sadness to make mundane light moments in life have extra comedic value and campy horror films use comedy only for shock value. Wild Tales certainly has its share of shocks, but in addition to be visually shocking (at certain points), they are also dramatically shocking. We are surprised at the narrative turn the stories take and how quickly the devolve into total madness. Because of the layout of the project – six shorts each with the same structure – after the first two establish that structure the response becomes a question of how Szifron will pull off the big shock-laugh this time around and the tension that builds knowing that it will all be going to hell makes for little moments that can play to big laughs.
In addition to being about revenge, Wild Tales is also a story of class, and Szifron takes joy in the rich and powerful social elite getting their comeuppance from an ignored or outright disrespected lower class. Szifron’s clear judgement makes it easy to laugh at the characters being put through the sadistic ringer he forces them into. When a wronged waitress and line-cook with a past realize that their only patron is a local notorious mob boss, you want to call their bluff when the rat poison appears. When the Audi-driving businessman flips off a redneck from the safety of his car as he passes on a country road, of course you laugh when a flat tire a few miles down the road leads the a confrontation that ends in brutal death. By the time you realize that these small, seemingly consequence-free acts of class warfare that lead off each piece will eventually pay off with the ultimate consequence, you cringe as the inciting incident is played through.
In many mainstream American comedies, the humor and drama is usually derailed two-thirds into the film as the director attempts to ground and humanize his characters. The moment you start to feel a Judd Apatow film is starting to run a little long is the moment it pauses to ask you to empathize with his man-child leads. Szifron has no time for empathy and in this type of comedy that’s all the better. He puts his characters in a fishbowl and sets the lens to them, allowing the viewer to consider their actions through his judgment of these deeply deplorable people. It is a similar to the type of filmmaking Armando Ianucci (In the Loop, Veep) employs, where he doesn’t worry about making a likable character for the audience to cling to but rather, makes his worldview very clear and uses that as the audience access point.
Szifron also takes advantage of a short film form that can be referred to as the “punchline short,” where the entire run of the short is a set up for a punchline that is usually the final beat of the film. Often times, the title even serves as a set up for what you know will eventually pay off. For example, in one of my favorite short films Gregory Go Boom by Janicza Bravo starring Michael Cera, the at first cryptic title of the short pays off as you learn more and realize what will ultimately be the final shot of the film. This is a storytelling device unique to short form content and Szifron plays with it in the feature theatrical exposition format in that the viewer eventually comes to understand a punchline is coming, so he is forced to subvert expectations of when or how.
It is also why the least successful shorts are buried in the middle of the run of show, because once the format is established, Szifron creates a higher degree of difficulty each time which is not always met. However, the establishing of the form also allows for smaller beats earlier in the piece to pay off in the later shorts in the series because the viewer comes to understand the types of consequences to come. Ultimately, Wild Tales is a fascinating study in comedic form and content. While the ultimately audience reaction goal is laughter, as it would be in any broad, raunchy comedy, the road Szifron takes to get there is unique, unexpected and original to his voice and worldview.