The BMW pulls into the driveway of the mansion late one night. The license plate has been ripped askew and has blood marks on it. The kid leaps out of the car sobbing and tells his parents that he hit a woman and fled from the scene. Soon, news about the hit-and-run is broadcast on TV with an angry crowd gathering and demanding that police find the perpetrator. The kid is scared. He should be. Fortunately, his father is rich. With the help of his own personal Michael Clayton/Winston Wolf-type “fixer,” the father hatches a scheme: Give $500,000 to the family’s poor groundskeeper to take the fall for the kid.
The plan almost works. But soon the fixer demands a $500,000 retainer fee of his own. When the local prosecutor arrives, he immediately sees right through the scheme and demands a $1 million payment in order to keep silent. When the groundskeeper sees that the prosecutor is being paid more money, he demands an increase of his own. And so it goes. More money, more convoluted details, and more angst for the father who in earnest just wanted to do what he could to keep his kid out of prison.
This story, entitled La Propuesta (The Proposal), is one of the six 20-minute episodes from Damian Szifron’s Relatos salvajes (Wild Tales), and it is also the strongest. It works because all the events take place within a self-contained time and place: A single evening, at a single location. Its story does not contain enough characters or dramatic situations or progressions to merit a feature-length film, but the moral questions it asks are of the same caliber as the best of Renoir, Kurosawa or Hitchcock: What is the price of a human life? Who has the authority to set the price of a human life, and is it ethical, if put in a position of vast financial wealth, to indulge in temporary deceit in order to amend unfortunate happenstance if the result is a greater good for all? Look at the facts: The son stays out of prison, the groundskeeper’s family is abundantly provided for, the dead woman’s family gets justice, and heck, you could even say wealth is more equitably distributed among all the parties. But of course, there is always a steep price to pay – a price greater than any amount of money – when deception and human fallacy are at the center of a cover-up. The conclusion of La Propuesta illustrates this in no uncertain terms in its startling and abrupt climax.
Had La Propuesta been a feature film, we perhaps would have gotten a deeper backstory into the troubled father-son relationship or the difficulties the groundskeeper faces at home with his poor wife and children, or the way that the prosecutor is trying to work his way up the corporate ladder at work. Of course, we don’t need any of that. The episode’s greatest strength lies in its brevity – its simple and lucid examination of character types and their flaws, and how hasty, rash, immoral thinking leads to tragic results. Further depth would only proselytize. That’s the benefit of a short film. It stays with us just long enough to get the major point across and not too long that the point becomes banal.
In some ways, La Propuesta is the most atypical of Wild Tales’ episodes. Most of the others are more comedic and even operatic, as in the case of El mas fuerte (The Strongest), where a simple game of chicken played between two drivers on a remote highway escalates into deranged anger and homicidal rage. This comes dangerously close to veering into Tex Avery material, but Szifron does a good job at showing the intoxication that rage and violence sometimes breeds; one-upmanship simply isn’t enough. There is a cathartic thrill to unleashing the anger that resides deep within even the friendliest of people. The episode concludes in a deeply ironic vein, but also in a way that illustrates the absurdity of violence as well as the universality of passionate anger.
If there is a recurring theme in the episodes of Wild Tales, it may be how extreme revenge rarely fulfills its stated intentions. An example of this is found in Las Ratas (The Rats), which tells the tale of a chance encounter between a young waitress and the man who destroyed her family’s well-being and caused her father’s suicide. When this man enters her restaurant on a dark and rainy evening, the waitress tells her cook that she’s been waiting her entire life to have the enact revenge on the man. The cook suggests poisoning his food, which at first appalls the waitress, but gradually begins to intrigue her. Like La Propuesta, the episode initially revolves around the moral decision-making that the waitress is forced to make, and concludes with the unintended and tragic consequences that stem from that decision.
Another episode, Pasternak, is the unfortunate byproduct of bad timing on a global news scale. The story involves a seemingly random group of people on board a plane who gradually realize they share a common connection to a mentally disturbed individual out to enact revenge on each of them. Then they realize this individual is in the cockpit of the plane. This story, which feels labored and pat in its standard O. Henry-esque formulation, is unfunny in its own right and even less so as a result of the recent Germanwings Flight 9525 crash (somehow seeing a doomed flight hijacked by a mentally unstable pilot doesn’t feel especially funny or novel). The episode ends with the pilot’s psychologist pleading through the cockpit door that his feelings of worthlessness stem solely from his parents. This sets up the last image of the episode, which looks spectacular from a visual standpoint but from a narratively, comes off rather inert and depressing when I would assume the intent was poetically comic.
The other two episodes, Bombita (Little Bomb) and Hasta que la muerte nos separe (Until Death Do Us Part) involve individuals who are put through tremendous suffering. In Bombita, a structural engineer’s car is unfairly towed by the corrupt municipal towing authority, which prompts a downward spiral leading to the engineer’s firing, divorce from his wife, and accumulating debt from parking tickets. The engineer decides to undertake a plan of revenge enacted against the towing authority. At times this episode feels like it’s going down a similar path to Pasternak in its disturbingly lightweight depiction of homegrown terrorism, but fortunately, the engineer’s fate takes a heroic turn. In Hasta que la muertre nos separe, which concludes the film, a joyous wedding takes a turn for the worst when the bride is informed her new husband has not been faithful. The excessively madcap anger of the bride makes her feel like a character from a Pedro Almodovar film (not surprisingly, Almodovar is listed as an Executive Producer) and as the wedding devolves into mass uncivilized chaos, the bride and groom soon realize the futility of their actions.
With the exception of La Propuestra, none of these films are masterpieces, but indeed that is precisely the beauty of the short film form – the episodes never grow long enough to become an unwelcome presence. They are generally light, amusing, and often surprising. According to Wikipedia, Wild Tales is the most widely-seen Argentine film of all-time, which given its bold and breezy structure is not particularly surprising. During its opening credit sequence, cast and crew names are presented on top of backgrounds featuring still photographs of wild animals. What does Damian Szifron mean by this? It could be read as humans being no more civilized than our brethren of the animal kingdom. Or something else entirely. We do not know the answer, nor the ways in which the six episodes are related (or if such a throughline even exists), but the catalog of images and the films do just enough for Wild Tales to leave an indelible impact on audiences, just like all good short films should.(Note: Wild Tales was Argentina’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 87th Academy Awards).
Rating: 3 Stars