Day five of our Best Picture nominee countdown brings us to the movie I think is most likely to take the prize, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel. While I think most people will probably concede that Babel is either the frontrunner for the Oscar or neck-in-neck with Little Miss Sunshine, more and more I’m finding myself alone in thinking that it actually should win.
And the hell of it is, I have a hard time arguing with people who didn’t like it.
Babel is, in many ways, the completion of a trilogy of films that Inarritu has made with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga that use the same fractured narrative to suggest the interconnectedness of people. But the first two, Amoros Perros and 21 Grams, lack the scope of this latest entry, which better illustrates the theme and allows the story to hinge less on melodrama and more on a few quiet moments of humanity.
It cuts around between four interconnected stories. In Morroco, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchette play Richard and Susan, an American couple on vacation, trying to repair their marriage after the death of their youngest child. At the same time, a young Morrocan boy named Yusef (played extremely well by Boubker Ait El Caid) and his brother are given a gun by their father to protect the family’s herd of goats. But boys will be boys, and pretty soon they’re taking practice shots at things to see how far the gun will shoot, finally taking a shot at a passing bus, which hits and seriously wounds Susan. Later we learn that the gun came to Yussef’s father from a visiting Japanese hunter, Yasujiro (Koji Yakusho), who we meet in Hong Kong with his deaf/mute daughter, Chieko (a riveting Rinko Kikuchi). And in San Diego, we find Richard and Susan’s two other children, Debbie and Mike (Elle Fanning- Dakota’s younger sister- and Nathan Gamble) being cared for by their Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza) while waiting for word on Susan.
That’s a lot of storylines to take in and keep straight, I know, but Guillermo Arriaga nearly invented this kind of disjointed story telling, and the script does a fantastic job of introducing us to all of these characters and revealing their connections and back stories in a way that feels totally natural and not at all forced. And once we have all these pieces in place, we follow them on what is almost entirely a downward trajectory. For 130 of its 142 minute runtime, tragedy looms over all four of these families, and it is only in the last ten minutes that the characters, and the audience, find some small cause for hope.
And while that makes the movie kind of a downer, for the most part, I appreciate a film that doesn’t coddle the audience’s emotions. Inirratu doesn’t want to make us feel good about ourselves and the state of the world. Rather, I think, he wants us to realize that our words and our actions have consequences far beyond what we can ever really imagine. It says a lot about his perspective on the world that what we find at the center of this cultural spiderweb is a gun. Now you have to swallow some improbable coincidences to make the conceit work, but if you go with it, I think you’ll find that Inirratu and Arriaga are on the verge of something profound here.
Please note that I say ‘on the verge of’, because A.O. Scott is right that these stories and ideas never really coalesce into something concrete. Instead, the movie dances around our connections to other people, whether they are family or foreigners, whether they can’t understand you or don’t have a voice with which to respond. But I dig thematic ambiguities in a movie if they’re well delivered, and it seems to me that the conversations viewers will have with others and with themselves is more the point than the conclusions those conversations will come to.
It helps the film tremendously that every section of the film is so beautifully, perfectly presented. The cast of unknowns and movie stars mesh perfectly, but it is the unknowns that really sell the movie. You may never see faces like Inarritu has found for many of the small Morrocan roles in another Hollywood(ish) movie. I’ve been raving about Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi since I saw Babel over Thanksgiving, and Kikuchi in particular continues to stick with me. Honestly, and I may be betraying myself as a writer here, it’s hard for me to find the right words to describe her performance. And this is not to take anything away from Brad and Cate. Their relationship feels totally fleshed out, with the weight of their tragedies and responsibilities hovering over every awkward silence and misinterpreted word. Pitt always seems to do his best work when he sheds that pretty boy image (compare Troy with Seven), and this one is definitely a check in the plus column for him.
Before I cut this off, I just want to mention a few small things, both positive and negative. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is just beautiful. He makes the most of the wildly different locations, separating them in subtle tones (and even switching between 35 and 16mm) without ever making them feel totally disjointed. Gustavo Santaolalla’s score is very unusual, but perfectly suited to the entire film, which is a monumental achievement. I’m definitely pulling for him to win the Oscar. On the negative side, there is a Hong Kong club scene with Chieko that runs a bit too long, and has enough strobe lights to induce a seizure. And Gael Garcia Bernal (playing Amelia’s nephew), who I generally like, doesn’t really sell me on his role, and he makes some tremendously stupid decisions that I just didn’t believe his character would make. Those are small complaints, but they did pull me out of the film.
Well, faithful moviegasm readers, we did it. Five reviews in five days, and I only passed out from exhaustion twice. Hope you enjoyed this flury of film criticism, and keep checking in for more, as there are actually some good movies opening up in the next few weeks (I’m especially interested in 300 and Number 23). And as always, tune in Monday for the box office wrap.