Cate Blanchett as Susan
Brad Pitt as Richard
Gael García Bernal as Santiago
Jamie McBride as Bill
Kôji Yakusho as Yasujiro
Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko
Adriana Barraza as Amelia
Lynsey Beauchamp as Isabel
Nathan Gamble as Mike (son)
Elle Fanning as Debbie
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Alejandro (“21 Grams”) Iñarritu traverses the globe to create another powerful and unforgettable emotional experience, only slightly marred by its unconventional storytelling technique.
In Morocco, two young boys playing with the rifle their father gave them to protect their goats accidentally shoot a tourist (Cate Blanchett), sending her husband (Brad Pitt) on a frantic search for medical help. Meanwhile, their kids have been taken across the Mexican border by their housekeeper (Adriana Baraza), who then has trouble getting them back home. In Japan, a deaf teenage girl (Rinko Kikuchi) deals with the suicide death of her mother by trying to find love in destructive ways.
“21 Grams,” the last movie from Alejandro González Iñárritu and his writing partner Guillermo Arriaga, was an amazing non-linear drama that struck such a strong chord that it was my #1 movie that year. For their follow-up, they’ve devised four interlinked stories, told concurrently but cut-up so that each is told in a short section interspersed with the other stories. It’s a unique approach that’s often jarring due to the sudden changes in tone throughout the movie, but it also adds to the experience in ways that can’t be easily explained.
Each of the individual stories have a great deal of merit, starting with the story of how a rifle splits a Moroccan family apart after two young brothers start using passing cars for target practice, shooting a tourist, played by Cate Blanchett, and sending her frantic husband Richard (Brad Pitt) on a desperate quest for medical attention. These two stories are the most connected, as we see each side of the same story, Richard trying to save his wife while the boys trying to hide their error in judgment from their father and the authorities, both leading to intense situations. Even before the shooting, we discover that Richard’s marriage has been on the rocks and that their trip to Morocco was meant to get away from the kids, spend some time alone and try to save it.
The third story involves their kids back home in California, who have been taken across the Mexican border by their maid Amelia (Adriana Barraza) for her son’s wedding. At first, it’s the most innocuous of the stories, spending most of its time showing festivities at a Mexican wedding, before throwing a huge monkey wrench into the works when Amelia and her drunken nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) run into trouble with the border patrol on their way back into the United States.
The fourth (and the best) story takes place in Tokyo, though it has the least connection to the Morocco shooting. It involves a deaf teenager named Chieko (newcomer Rinko Kikuchi), trying to deal with the suicide death of her mother, rebelling against her father’s loving concern but looking for human contact in destructive ways. This is the most emotional of the stories, but also the most playful, at least at first, due to the setting and the free-spirited nature of the central character.
All four stories could stand alone as their own films, but it’s the way they are told at the same time that keeps “Babel” interesting for its two-hour plus running times, even if it sometimes tries too hard to connect the stories and characters. The biggest hurdle to this approach is that just as you’re getting involved in one of the stories, it quickly cuts away with at least 10 to 15 minutes of other stories before it returns. It creates a schizophrenic emotional rollercoaster, since each of the stories peaks at a different time, you find yourself reaching a climax and having it cut short when the movie cuts from an intense scene to a more placid one. Amelia’s story starts out slow but by the end, it’s both nerve-wracking and devastating, while Richard and Susan’s situation is almost the exact opposite. Chieko’s story never really has a moment so intense that it has you gritting your teeth, but it’s the story that keeps you emotionally invested in her character from beginning to end.
The movie offers a number of strong messages, whether it’s an indictment on neglectful gun control or the tyranny of the U.S. border patrol, but it doesn’t try to hit the viewer over the head with them. The title and trailer are somewhat deceptive in that the language barrier doesn’t play as large a part in the stories as you might expect; there’s always someone bilingual around to translate, so it’s usually red tape that causes the tension between characters.
The true power of the piece comes from the strong performances by one of the best ensemble casts this year, despite there being only three “name” stars in Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal. Pitt gets to flex his emotional muscle in the role of a husband on the verge of losing his wife even before she’s shot and on the edge of death. Blanchett’s performance mainly involves her writhing on the ground and moaning, but even in that, she excels. Dramatically, their scenes are the most intense, but they’re not nearly as interesting as the other stories. By the end of the movie, they’re overshadowed by Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza who will have you in tears with their character arcs. Kikuchi delivers a performance that leaves her emotionally and physically naked as a young girl who feels alone and unloved despite her father clearly wanting to connect with her. Barraza will take you by surprise, particularly in the last 20 minutes as she finds herself in a life-and-death situation that seems incredible considering how innocently her story begins.
Technically, the movie is another masterpiece, as Iñarittu captures the gritty, realistic situations using handheld camera, a technique that often makes you forget that you’re watching a movie. The global nature of the stories lets him explore different cultures beyond his Mexican roots, including Japanese teen culture and rural Moroccan lifestyles, all of which are embellished by an excellent soundtrack that mixes traditional music with poignant musical themes played on acoustic guitar.
The Bottom Line:
Anyone who appreciates the intricate work of Steven Gaghan (“Traffic,” “Syriana”) or last year’s “Crash” should find enough strong moments in at least two or three of the individual stories to keep them riveted, but they’ll find even more depth in the way the stories are layered to give the viewer many options on how the puzzle can be assembled and what it all means once it’s done.
Babel opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 27 and everywhere on November 10.