|Starring:||Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Koji Yakusho, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi|
Word of friction that has apparently severed the working relationship between director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga at first sounds like disappointing news. But after watching “Babel,” their third feature film collaboration, it’s hard not to feel that both men will benefit from the separation. With this effort, their creative union appears to have reached its logical conclusion, and “Babel” is a good (at times superlative) note to go out on.
Once again Arriaga’s screenplay, which jumps around the narrative timeline, focuses on a group of seemingly disparate characters whose individual stories eventually merge. González Iñárritu’s aggressively sophisticated visual style lends itself much better to this script than the writer and director’s previous joint effort, the overly stylized “21 Grams.” The director allows moments of spontaneous energy to emanate from the screen, releasing the vice grip that strangled every aspect of “21 Grams.” His directing can still be obtrusive, but it’s not overwhelming here.
The film begins in Morocco. Two young brothers, Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid) and Ahmed (Said Tarchani), are given a newly obtained rifle from their father and instructed to clear the immediate area of jackals. The boys take turns firing the rifle, but when they skeptically test the weapon’s range on a tourist bus that climbs up a windy road, the results are devastating. Their “test” bullet hits an American tourist, Susan (Cate Blanchett), in the neck. Her husband, Richard, (Brad Pitt) desperately tries to save the woman, but medical help is not readily available. The incident becomes international news, viewed as a possible act of terrorism.
In San Diego, Richard and Susan’s two children are being cared for by their Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza). She is granted permission to take a day off to attend her son’s wedding in Tijuana, but this permission is rescinded on the morning of the event (for reasons that become clear later). Amelia decides she has no choice but to bring the children to the wedding. The decision turns out to have dire consequences.
In Japan, a deaf-mute teenage girl, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), longs for attention, mainly of the sexual variety, causing her to behave in increasingly misguided ways. She’s working through the trauma created by her mother’s suicide, which still brings an occasional visit from the police to question her father. The authorities’ most recent trip to the household has nothing to do with Chieko’s deceased mother, but instead involves the whereabouts of one of her father’s hunting rifles.
The screenplay balances the characters nicely with no one story dominating the film. The plight of Chieko is intriguing at first, but reaches an unsatisfying conclusion. While this segment of the script fits into the movie’s thematic scope, it gradually feels like an appendix that lacks the stakes of the rest of the material. The film wouldn’t be a González Iñárritu/Arriaga effort if the proceedings didn’t become tortured at some point, and “Babel” reaches that territory in its mildly disappointing final act.
González Iñárritu has the ability to elicit effectively focused performances from his actors, and it’s worth mentioning that Pitt, Blanchett and especially Gael Garcia Bernal blend in nearly seamlessly with the rest of the unknown (and in some cases, nonprofessional) cast. Rinko Kikuchi’s performance has already created buzz, but I’m more impressed with Adriana Barraza’s work in a less showy role.
Despite its 142 minute running time, “Babel” only feels a tiny bit long and one’s interest level will remain high throughout. But if you’ve seen “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams,” the film will also be predictable. I’m not suggesting you’ll be able to guess the exact story beats, but one will have an acute sense of the type of punishment that lies in store for the characters. Even if they’ve constructed a slightly different vehicle, the filmmakers are essentially repeating themselves.
When González Iñárritu and Arriaga first burst onto the scene with 2000’s “Amores Perros,” their approach felt vibrant and original. Now with three films under their collective belt, it’d be tough for even their most passionate supporters to deny that the approach has become a formula. And there’s nothing wrong with a formula when it works, but there are enough flaws (the same ones found in all their films) in “Babel” to make me believe the filmmakers rift (the root apparently lies in an inability to share equal authorship of their creations) is a blessing in disguise. After all, it’s usually never a bad idea to quit while you’re ahead.