“Wild Tales” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:55, three stars out of four.
The six short films that make up Argentine writer-director Damian Szifron’s anthology “Wild Tales” might be episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” with their macabre overtones, twist endings and explorations of the dark side of the human condition. But here, the “twilight zone” the characters pass through isn’t some supernatural no man’s land, but the thin line between civilized and savage behavior. And many characters don’t just pass through — they happily leap through.
In the hilariously mean-spirited opening chapter, “Pasternak,” for example, a businesswoman starts idly chatting with a seatmate and finds that they know the same man. Then an elderly lady in front of them chimes in that she knows him too. Pretty soon, every passenger on the plane reveals some connection with the man, that they’ve done him some wrong in the past.
But where is he? And why are the cockpit doors locked?
In film after film, we see everyday people locked in mortal combat with each other. In “The Rats,” a cafe waitress finds her only customer on a rainy night is the arrogant politician who drove her father to suicide. “Road to Hell” is a gleefully violent tale of escalating road rage between an imperious yuppie and a hair-triggered brute turns into a “Tom & Jerry” cartoon of epic proportions.
And in my favorite, Argentine film star Ricardo Darin (“Nine Queens”) plays a family man whose goes to war with the municipal bureaucracy of Buenos Aires over some unjust parking violations. Rebuffed by one rude clerk after another, seeing his endless battle start to impact his family and work life, Darin does a magnificent slow burn. The only thing City Hall hadn’t factored in was the man’s occupation — demolitions expert.
A short in which a wealthy man tries to bribe his gardener into taking the fall for the wealthy man’s son’s fatal hit-and-run doesn’t quite come together — the savagery is buried under too many layers of financial negotiating. But “Wild Tales” recovers nicely with its final tale, “Til Death To Us Part,” in which a bride learns about her new husband’s infidelity — during their first dance at the wedding — and the reception erupts in cake-, champagne- and blood-soaked chaos.
The point of these stories — that the veneer of respectability that camouflages man’s essential barbaric nature can be ripped away at any time — is hardly original, and “Wild Tales” has little profound to say about the human condition. But what it is is a lot of fun, pulling a steady stream of I-can’t-believe-I’m-laughing-at-that laughs out of the viewer. Szifron is at times a needlessly showy director, with shots that deliberately draw attention to themselves without adding much to the film. But he keeps the pace nimble, and the balance between high spirits and low behavior maintains throughout.
In the wedding-day film in particular, “Wild Tales” seems to suggest that there might be something healthy (or at least honest) in letting your inner wild animal out once in a while. Maybe, but I think letting the beast enjoy two hours of cartoonish depravity is about as far as most of us should go.