There are two kinds of humanist movie. One kind shows human beings struggling against the most unspeakable horrors, sorrows or injustices and still, somehow, emerging with their essential goodness intact. The second, thornier type gives us people doing terrible things to one another — screaming, cheating and generally making life hell — and leaves us with no reassuring answers beyond a wink and a good-natured shrug. Argentine writer-director Damián Szifrón's Wild Tales is the second kind, a collection of sketches, six in all, which have virtually nothing to do with one another aside from their astute, and not necessarily generous, view of human nature. But in the end, Szifrón can't turn fully away from humanity. When we stop and look at ourselves, accepting our flaws and those of other people, we're not so bad. Or maybe it's just that we're the hell we know. Either way, Wild Tales has so much feral, prickly energy that it gives off warmth rather than coldness.
In the opener, “Pasternak,” a tall stunner of a woman (María Marull) boards a plane and, just after takeoff, strikes up a conversation with a semi-flirtatious classical-music critic (Darío Grandinetti). She mentions that her first boyfriend, some dude by the name of Gabriel Pasternak, was a musician; the critic, it turns out, has had occasion to suffer Pasternak's woeful lack of talent. From there, the conversation spirals into madness, culminating in a bitterly funny take on nerd revenge — it's a whacked-out disquisition on the big dreams of the little guy who fights back.
In “Road to Hell,” an asshole speeding down the highway in a fancy new Audi (Leonardo Sbaraglia) yells “Redneck!” as he passes an unshaven thug in a dirty truck (Walter Donado). Then — naturalmente — Audi Guy gets a flat tire, and Mr. Redneck proceeds to make his life miserable, using every tool at his disposal (including some you really won't want to recall while you're eating). Their macho posturing escalates into an absurd man-vs.-man struggle that goes over the edge and beyond, until their mutual hatred becomes a twisted bond.
Wild Tales is loose-limbed, rowdy and exhilarating — in its vibrant lunacy, and with its cartoonishly brash violence, it's a little bit Almodóvar, a little bit Tarantino. (The picture was, in fact, produced by Pedro Almodóvar and his brother, Agustín.) But as with all movies stitched together from discrete mini-stories, some sections work better than others. The weakest is “The Bill,” in which the patriarch of a rich family (Oscar Martínez) panics when he discovers that his son has killed a pregnant woman in a hit-and-run accident and tries to pay off his gardener (Germán de Silva) to take the rap. As a sendup of everyday human corruption, it's only moderately effective, and its undisguised bitterness is out of tune with the rest of the movie. But the segment that follows, “Till Death Do Us Part,” sets everything right, in the sense that it's oh-so-wrong in the best way. A bride (Erica Rivas) discovers that her groom (Diego Gentile) has cheated on her — the proof drops during the reception. After that, chaos reigns.
“Till Death Do Us Part” captures the desperate joyousness of wedding celebrations, that distinctly anxious crackle that hangs in the air on a day when everything, without exception, must be absolutely perfect. In this case, the bride and groom's devotion to each other is an even bigger question than whether or not they should have splurged on the hot pastrami buffet. When the bride discovers the infidelity — she locates the vixen's number on her new husband's cellphone, rings it and boils with rage from across the room at that setup's inevitable outcome — she becomes a she-wolf, a demon of fury in puffy white bridal gear.
Szifrón gets at the idea that weddings represent not just romantic hopes and wishes but also something deeply primal: a way of cementing our connection with another person that's highly unlikely to mesh with the reality of how human beings think and behave. The resulting tussle between bride and groom involves blood, broken glass and sloppy gobs of cake — but it ends with an unexpected note of wary tenderness. The line between love and hate is perilously thin, but Szifrón negotiates it like a tightrope walker. This is what we are, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, and all things considered, we're not so bad.
WILD TALES | Written and directed by Damián Szifrón | Sony Pictures Classics | Landmark