There’s a fine line between a genuinely sprawling story that interweaves disparate threads to create a larger whole and one that strains the credibility of those connections and betrays the viewer’s sensibilities. The latter version is a cheap knock-off of the first, but it’s still mighty popular, as evidenced by the recent wave of movies and TV shows that ache to show how we’re all just six degrees from each other, as in the case of, well, ABC’s “Six Degrees” and last year’s Crash. (Though really, the less said about Paul Haggis’ film, the better.) The truth of the matter is that we’re not all just one step away from running into the five people we’ll meet in heaven, but it’s also wrong to think that there’s no common thread of pain and love running though each of our daily experiences. Paul Thomas Anderson deftly explored this in Magnolia, charting a complex story about people who were naturally related and whose lives intertwined in unexpected and dangerous ways. That’s the difference: Some stories unfold with the natural rhythm of life, while others try too hard and stumble in their efforts, as if an old battered copy of Marquez could really bring two lonely people together. It’s these casual but haunting intersections of random lives that Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu has been poring over since his 2000 feature debut, Amores Perros, and he returned to the same ground in 2003’s 21 Grams (one of the sadder films Sean Penn’s done, and that ought to tell you a lot). His latest film, Babel, is another exercise in anachronistic storytelling focused around a single plot device, but instead of the car crash of Amores Perros, González Iñárritu uses a battered old Winchester rifle. It’s a lot like Anthony Mann’s Winchester ‘73, only replace Jimmy Stewart with a well of infinite sadness reflecting the inherent suffering of the human condition. Like its namesake, Babel is a towering achievement, but doesn’t quite stretch to the heavens.
González Iñárritu begins with a nameless man trudging through the surreal deserts of Morocco. This toothless nomad eventually arrives at a rundown hut and reveals the contents of the pack on his back: A rifle and 300 rounds, which he sells to the family in the hut for some cash and a goat. The father gives the rifle to his two young sons and commands them to kill jackals, and after idle squabbling while watching their flock — the older boy is domineering but a poor shot, while the younger is a dead aim and more mature than his years would show — they take a few potshots at a passing tour bus, which glides to a halt, screams echoing from within. González Iñárritu takes his time setting up this sequence, investing a lot of effort into letting the landscapes and character interactions speak for themselves. All told, the film runs around 2 ½ hours; González Iñárritu definitely isn’t afraid to let the story unspool at its own pace.
The story then jumps to Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett), a well-off couple from San Diego vacationing with a bunch of other rich white tourists in Morocco. Like his previous films, Babel slides between storylines and timeframes with ease, charting an emotional ebb and flow instead of a chronological one. But back to the desert: Like most of the relevant details, the Moroccan setting only becomes evident after a certain point, and finding out what country Richard and Susan are in has an odd grounding effect on the story. After all, everywhere’s got to be somewhere; it’s a small planet. But the most unsettling part of their story is its beginning, before González Iñárritu has given them a place or even a history, when they’re just a lonely couple floating through an impossibly alien land. It’s Richard and Susan that González Iñárritu focuses on because they’re the ones on the bus who will be plucked by random fate: It becomes evident that Susan is going to be the one shot, and the view of her sleeping in the cramped bus chair is almost unbearable because we know too well what’s coming, but González Iñárritu’s forcing us to watch anyway. The director is a master of using jumbled timelines to heighten emotional impact and draw out suspense; imagine Tarantino in his prime, only much, much better.
Stuck in Morocco, Richard and Susan have left their two young children with their housekeeper, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), and when the shooting delays their trip home, Amelia winds up dragging the kids with her down to Mexico for her son’s wedding. They ride with her nephew, Santiago, played by Gael García Bernal, which is a nice touch from González Iñárritu, since Barraza played Bernal’s mother in Amores Perros. In contrast with the gray shades smeared across the Moroccan story arc, the children’s journey into Mexico is full of light and life, and while it will inevitably veer off into danger and despair — that’s kind of González Iñárritu’s m.o. — along the way it offers some of the most quietly beautiful moments in the entire film. González Iñárritu crafts some gorgeous montages at the wedding, from the wedding party marching through the dusty streets, to the all-night reception brimming with families and music and drunk, dancing relatives. I found myself smiling for no reason, and I realized González Iñárritu had managed to subtly disarm the stereotypes I’d held about what would happen as soon as these little white kids crossed the border.
Unfortunately, González Iñárritu stumbles in the third part of the story, which centers on a deaf Japanese teen and her rocky relationship with her father. It’s not that the Tokyo-set plotline is farfetched; if anything, González Iñárritu finds an interesting way to tie Richard and Susan into the life of Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), who, in her desperation to be loved, had a chance to become the film’s most empathetic character. But instead, Chieko’s wanderings around town become bogged down in melodrama, and her stilted relationship with her distant father relies on just one too many clichés. González Iñárritu throws everything from a recent familial death to clunky, curious displays of sexuality that would be better suited to a student film. By the arc’s conclusion, Chieko has become just another boring archetype in a film that should have demanded more of her.
The below-the-line credits read like a who’s who of modern Mexican cinema, with González Iñárritu reuniting with the heavy hitters he’s used in the past. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s camera captures people at their realest, with sweat on their brows and grime under their fingernails. Scenes of suspense and peace are treated with a similar eye, blurring the emotional lines between safety and danger along with the tumultuous screenplay from Guillermo Arriaga. Meanwhile, Argentinean composer Gustavo Santaolalla showcases his range by providing a score that relies on acoustic strings but is miles away from the mournful peace of Brokeback Mountain.
Despite its occasional faults, there are some genuinely wonderful moments here, especially between Pitt and Blanchett. Blanchett’s mix of class and grit is a wonderful reminder that she’s capable of such greater heights than The Lord of the Rings, and it’s also no stretch to say that this is Pitt’s best dramatic work to date. The hints of gravitas that peeked through the flash of Fight Club and the murk of Seven finally make themselves known here; Pitt is completely watchable, and compellingly human. Sporting a rough beard spotted with gray, he wears his character’s fatigue like a badge of honor; he charts a rocky course between keeping his wife alive while waiting for medical help to make it to his forgotten corner of the world and barely keeping it together as his options dwindle.
But for all the beautiful moments González Iñárritu manages to capture, Babel still comes across as just that: A series of moments strung together in a film that is thoroughly powerful but often not very convincing. After all, a roller coaster is a jarring ride, but you end up right where you started.
The story goes that when man had grown proud of his accomplishments and began building a tower in their honor, God came down and confused their languages, scattered their number, and destroyed their unity. His jealousy was provoked by man’s ambition, and it’s not entirely bad that González Iñárritu is attempting to reclaim that sense of drive and scope, to build a tower high enough to make sense of the world below him. If his attempt somewhat fails, perhaps it’s enough that he tried.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Sadness Is a Warm Gun
Film | November 7, 2006 | Comments ()