Friday, March 31, 2017
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writers: Guillermo Arriaga, Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla
Editors: Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrione
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Koji Yakusho, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, Elle Fanning
I'm never going to knock director and cowriter Alejandro González Iñárritu for ambition. He thinks big, he dreams big, and it's always about making the big overpowering cinematic gesture, impact, weaving narrative structures, kinetic visuals, and explosive action intuitively across complex stories. Babel, as usual, has a few storylines, and even a number of separate time streams. In the end it's mostly a familiar lament about the geography of our shrinking interconnected world, with more communication but less communicating (or vice versa, I'm sure). See also the Bible story that supplies the title. Well, that's Iñárritu for you. Babel takes the guise of the "for want of a nail" tale, otherwise known as the "butterfly effect" in chaos theory. One thing leads to another and if it weren't for that one thing there wouldn't be all these others.
I've straightened Babel all out for you and I'll give you the spine of it straight, and then we can get to the details, which is where this movie is most alive and worth seeing: A wealthy Japanese man, after a big-game hunting trip, gives his Moroccan guide a highly powerful and accurate rifle as a kind of tip. The guide sells the rifle to his neighbor who needs a way to get rid of the jackals that are preying on his goats. Of the neighbor's two sons, the youngest is a natural sharpshooter, but there is sibling rivalry between the two. Out hunting jackals one day the boys want to see how far the rifle can shoot—they have been told three kilometers. Sibling rivalry happens and the youngest boy shoots at a tour bus some good distance away from their mountain perch. As it happens he plugs Cate Blanchett as Susan Jones right in the neck. She's hate-traveling with Brad Pitt as her husband Richard, trying to patch up a faltering marriage. They have the glow of Americanness about them. The situation—immediately taken as terrorism, of course—also means, back in their San Diego home, that no one can be found to take care of their kids so that their long-time trusted housekeeper can attend her son's wedding in Mexico. So she decides to take the kids with her. Crossing into Mexico with those kids and her ne'er-do-well nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) is one of the best scenes in the movie. You somehow know nothing good is going to come of it. The foreboding is overwhelming.
Well, that's about it. Babel is extremely intense and often stressful, and the way these scenes transpire and keep getting worse and worse paradoxically can be really wonderful, with a sense of discovery, even if you're groaning. One complaint I have to make is not so much that the movie is confusing, which it is, but that it doesn't do obvious things to help. For example, title cards in the primary establishing shots with names such as "Tokyo" (I think), "Morocco," and "San Diego" would have been nice. We particularly have to wait way too long to find out it's Morocco, with no good reason for the delay. I don't mind waiting to see how things develop, I just don't like having information withheld for the sake of mystification. The specific Arabic country in the Middle East is important to know and nothing is gained by hiding it. (Now that we know, however, if we have also seen Allied, we can answer the trivia question "Which two movies starred Brad Pitt in Casablanca?")
That's about it for complaining. I really love all the things this movie does and the places it goes, indulgent and otherwise. There's more than a little of the blustering Oliver Stone in Iñárritu, and some of Spielberg's old-fashioned globe-trotting panache too. But Iñárritu always makes his scenes interesting on the most basic human levels too. It's withering on American arrogance—American privilege. The story of the Japanese man (Koji Yakusho) and his family may have little bearing on the rest of it, which is an unholy tangle, but it's still some of the best stuff here, with the Japanese man and his deaf teen daughter working through a recent suicide of their wife and mother. The daughter (Rinko Kikuchi) is particularly having adjustment problems, coping as well with both her adolescence and her disability, with often disturbing results. There is a memorable scene with a police officer.
My favorite storyline is about the housekeeper Amelia in San Diego (Adriana Barraza with an amazing performance), whose hapless descent is purely a matter of circumstance. Of all the many victims in this movie, she is the most innocent, and it's heart-wrenching to see her make one small bad decision after another, until the situation finally goes out of control in eye-popping fashion. "Eye-popping"—well, that's also Iñárritu for you. Over 10 years old, this movie also happens to be full of useful insights on the situation at the US-Mexico border and the way things go down in those places. Or at least it seemed believable—it was definitely riveting.
More than anything, the structure, the editing, the cunning way Babel moves from scene to scene is a kind of sustained performance in itself. It's so intuitive, and yet so often precise, about the crazy angles on which it veers off. There is a Moebius strip loop-the-loop across the stories and time streams, for example, where early in the movie a phone call is seen from one side of the conversation, and late in the movie from the other. And yet it is all seamlessly stitched together, with high dramatics and human pathos and I couldn't take my eyes off it, even though it's long. In the end this movie just seems to be about the way things in life collide and happen. Good with popcorn too I'm sure, but I think it's another kind of popcorn movie altogether.