Petty Crimes, by Scott Nye
As elated as I can often be by the more overtly entertaining entries in modern cinema, there is one thing often missing from them – a sense of choice, that the protagonists are active participants in the story in which they’re trapped. Modern blockbuster cinema features predominantly reactive characters who rise to battle whatever challenge faces them. Wild Tales takes a different approach to its stories (six vignettes, in all), featuring characters who are consistently faced with rather mundane predicaments and actively doing everything in their power to complicate, distort, and often worsen their station. And while this “yes, and?” approach to perverse stories full of sex, violence, revenge, and betrayal may not be the stuff of billion-dollar franchises…what can I say, I had a blast.
Passengers on an airplane discover they have, perhaps, too much in common. A waitress finds herself between a horrid mobster and a crooked chef. A road-rage insult incites a violent showdown. A towed car ruins a man’s life. A rich businessman bargains for his spoiled son’s life. And Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, especially on her wedding day. Six very simple, delicious premises. Writer/director Damián Szifrón pushes and pushes and pushes them riiiiiiiight up to the point at which the whole thing seems like it will snap, before cleverly resolving it in such a way that further damns his characters while reinforcing a certain sense of karmic moral fortitude.
Szifrón’s steady, locked-down frame is heavily focused on perspective, keeping certain bits of vital information just outside his characters’ (and thus, our) periphery. In the airplane sequence, he gradually introduces new characters, one by one, maintaining the anonymity they would naturally have to one another until, suddenly, their life circumstances come to intersect. In the tale of the towed car, said vehicle is out of view upon removal, so when he shifts the perspective to keep it firmly in the center of the frame, we suddenly realize its inevitable fate. Sometimes, this matter of perspective will take on more esoteric ends. In the waitress’s story, Szifrón cleverly utilizes the kitchen’s outlook to the restaurant to keep the mobster in the back of her mind, even (especially) when she’s looking away from him.
This effort to constantly reinforce our point of view is vital not just to its entertainment value (aligning an audience tightly with a protagonist heightens our allegiances and desire to see one side “win” while maintaining an element that needs “solving”), but also its thematic underbelly. Szifrón gives his characters many opportunities to escape, only to show them turn back and double-down on their troubles, betting high in hopes that the payoff will be all the greater. Wild Tales is an apt title for this collection of stories, but only because they are driven by wild people, determined to make their own fate yet powerless to deny their most base desires. The man whose car is towed misses his daughter’s birthday in order to retrieve it. “Why not just wait until tomorrow?” his wife asks. The husband replies that his sense of justice, of an effort to right the wrong he feels was committed, was too great to ignore. Each story follows this path, and in each time, they succeed, but not in the way they expected, or which aligns with our traditional definition of victory. The fun, as always, is in the details, the way Szifrón twists and condemns our expectations and desires. You can almost hear him cackling just offscreen.