Life in the fun-house mirror

'Wild Tales' delivers on its titular promise

Quentin Tarantino, move over. Argentinian writer-director Damián Szifron has his own "Wild Tales" to tell -- six of them, in fact -- in the take-no-prisoners black-comedic anthology film that rocked last year's Cannes Film Festival, became Argentina's most-watched film of 2014 and scored an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Like Tarantino, Szifron takes an obvious relish in man's inhumanity to man, man's inhumanity to woman and woman's inhumanity to man, all of which are merely preludes to nasty and at times wickedly over-the-top violence. Vengeance, then, is a primary motif in Szifron's chaotic universe: a fun-house mirror image that, despite its hyperbole, remains a recognizable reflection of our own.

Aside from the wildly creative opening segment ("Pasternak") and the post-credits chaser ("The Rats"), which are nasty, brutish and short, Szifron establishes a more leisurely pace with the remaining four short stories clocking in at roughly 20 minutes each. "Pasternak" and "The Rats" both feature revenge fantasies, one that we're traumatically rooting against (even as we admire its ingenuity) and another we may find ourselves rooting for, though less so the more distressingly messy it gets. Szifron's skills at playing with the audience's own desire for bloodlust -- only from the safety of theater seats, but of course -- and plying his cinematic trade with stylish precision put him in good company with "Master of Suspense" Alfred Hitchcock. Tools of the trade? A jumbo jet, rat poison and a sizable kitchen knife.

And cars, as per the segments "Road to Hell" and "The Deal," in which chance vehicular encounters turn deadly. The wan "The Deal" proves to be "Wild Tales"' weakest (though hardly worthless) effort, spinning the domestic horror of dealing with a hit-and-run into a hit-and-miss satire on people's shameless capacities for greed (lazily punctuated with an obvious "twist"). Szifron's specialty is stoking a laugh that, interrupted by a gasp, catches in the throat. "Road to Hell" gets there with a disproportionate bout of road rage of the "that escalated quickly" variety, while the "Bombita" segment (with Argentinian star player Ricardo Darín of "The Secret in Their Eyes" as an everyman-pushed-too-far) employs a ballooning pressure that you know just has to pop.

"Bombita" and the film's closing chapter, "Til Death Do Us Part," have the deepest impacts by being the most relatable and credible of the wild tales. The former makes hay of everyday institutional injustices (like maddening parking tickets and governmental bureaucracies) while the latter gets more personal: A groom's philandering irradiates his new bride (Érica Rivas) into a Bridezilla. Darín's controlled slow burn and Rivas' understandably crazed, avenging-angelic hurt are sure to get audiences where they live. Like Tarantino's films, "Wild Tales" will rub some the wrong way by taking glee in the violence that comes from our worst selves, but the catharses have a positive social function: In the end (in all six ends, that is), there's no doubt Szifron intends cautionary "Tales."

Rated R for violence, language and brief sexuality. Two hours, 2 minutes.

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