The great short-story writers know how to grab their readers from the get-go; with a few sentences, the author must establish the characters, the conflicts and their world so that the audience is immediately committed to the action, not to mention curious about how it will all unfold.
It’s a skill less appreciated that it once was, when mainstream magazines ran novellas in each issue as a matter of course, but a great short story still has the power to suck you in, immerse you in its milieu, and cap off its tale in a way that’s surprising, provocative and sometimes even shocking.
For an example of this style of writing at its finest, look no further than Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee “Wild Tales,” in which writer-director Damián Szifrón spins a series of superior yarns, all of them unpredictable yet at the same time recognizably human. Any anthology film runs the risk of being judged by its weakest link, but there’s not a single dud in the bunch.
Argentine Szifrón shares the pitch-black Iberian sense of humor for which Pedro Almodóvar (one of this film’s producers) has become famous, and audiences who don’t mind a little morbidity mixed into their mirth will be dazzled by these deliciously dark tales.
Rage and revenge link these stories, although it’s not always immediately apparent how or why: a group of strangers on an airplane discover an eerie series of coincidences; a waitress contemplates extreme retaliation against a customer; two angry men turn road rage into an escalating power struggle; one man’s fury against a bureaucratic system both shatters and rebuilds his life; a wealthy man conspires to keep his spoiled son out of jail after an accident; an elaborate wedding reception goes gloriously off the rails.
The characters, locations, and situations keep changing, but under Szifrón’s firm hand, each episode neatly dovetails into the next one, and the tone never changes gears too jarringly. Some chapters include underdogs facing off against those who would otherwise overpower them, but not every time, and certainly not always in the victim’s favor. This is a movie that acknowledges the cruelty and the absurdity of the universe, and as such, it keeps us from ever knowing just who is going to come out on top.
Cinematographer Javier Julia brings a different look to each location — from a dusty, sun-baked highway to a neon-lit diner to a fluorescent DMV hellhole to a pricey hotel ballroom – which both accentuates the atmosphere of each piece and allows us to keep each story separate and discrete. Talented composer Gustavo Santaolalla (“Brokeback Mountain,” “The Motorcycle Diaries”) weaves together a score that feels right for each separate part while also making each passage feel like part of a whole.
Szifrón’s previous work in film and television has been little seen in the United States, but “Wild Tales” represents the work of an exceedingly skillful storyteller. Whatever he plans to do next, admiring audiences around the globe are already impatiently awaiting.