Tarantinoesque” is a phrase that’s been attached to about a million movies since 1994, when Pulp Fiction yanked American cinema away from the resilient jaws of the Scorsese-Altman-Allen 1970s and finally delivered it into the present. The fact that this phenomenon’s most recent test sample, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dazzling debut Amores Perros, comes from Mexico and not the U.S. doesn’t diminish the comparison. All the telltale signs are there: the this-close-to-ironic, hip-in-a-dorky-way characters that are just as quirky and pop culture savvy as they are perpetually screwed up; the three separate storylines arranged like a jigsaw puzzle and stacked non-chronologically; the pervasively blunt violence that at times threatens to drown the film stock in bubbling reds and murky browns; and the requisite “Holy crap, check out this non-sequitor” conversation in which a gun-toting kidnapper insists that his gagged and bound prey join him for a nightcap.
But Iñárritu’s film has a badly broken heart sputtering beneath all the style, which is something Tarantino hasn’t really had the guts to go for yet. To that end, Amores Perros (loose translation: “Love’s a Bitch”) is the aching meditation on love and loss and catastrophe and chance that another fiercely talented and Quentin-influenced man of three names, Paul Thomas Anderson, tried and failed to make with Magnolia. Where that movie built and built and wept and wept until it had nowhere to turn but melodramatic cop-outs and self-parody, this one has the patience to glean real emotions from surreal situations and the intelligence not to offer up fake closure. This one hangs in the air like a smoke ring long after the house lights go up.
It also shares a smoke ring’s intangible hollow. Everyone here looks haunted by a profound sadness swimming just behind their faces and floating just beyond their reach. Guillermo Arriaga’s confident and skillful screenplay uses both fate and coincidence to explore the consequences of that sadness and to make both narrative and thematic links with it, most prominently in the form of a brutal car crash that opens the film and is repeated during each of its three chapters.
In one car, Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his friend are being pursued at high speed by a very mad, very armed group of rivals in the dog-fighting circuit. When he blows a red light at a busy intersection, Octavio collides with a sports sedan begin driven by supermodel Valeria (Goya Toledo) in a startlingly directed action sequence that recalls the adrenalized head rush of Scorsese’s prime. All the while, Sean Connery-in-The Rock look-alike El Chivo (Emilio Echevarria) watches from across the street, surrounded by his own filth and pack of dogs, a sore-thumb standout even in this chaotic scene.
The story then backtracks to show us how each of these parties got to that intersection before showing where they go afterwards. In the first section, Octavio is hopelessly in love with his brother’s wife Susana (Vanessa Bauche), and stumbles into the seedy world of dog-fighting to save up money and wrest her away from her husband’s abuse. Something of an afterthought in his own family, Octavio desperately wants to play the hero, rescue Susana and her babies—one born, one on the way—and carve out a new life somewhere else. Octavio is a well-intentioned but cringe-inducing character, always two inches away from total embarrassment or worse, and Bernal plays him with a pitch-perfect mix of sad-sack naivete and warped ambition. He’s a kid who clearly doesn’t understand the stakes of the game he’s taken up, either in his romantic fantasies or his decision to work the dog-fighting circuit, and there’s no shortage of stomach-wrenching moments as we wait for it to all catch up with him. (The fight scenes deserve particular notice: Iñárritu directs them with such ferocity and achieves such a high level of realism that it’s truly difficult to believe none of the dogs were seriously hurt during filming.)
Once everything does catch up with Octavio, Iñárritu turns his attention to Valeria and her lover Luis (Jorge Salinas), a married father of two who leaves his family behind to be with the girlfriend. Where Octavio’s story builds towards the accident, Valeria’s flows from it, focusing on her rehabilitation in the new apartment she and Luis have shared since the day of the crash. Valeria is possessed by the vanity of a famous person whose life revolves entirely around her looks—she frequently stares longingly and angrily at her own scantily-clad image in a billboard advertisement hung opposite her window—and wheelchair-bound recovery is a tough pill to take. When Richie, her beloved dog and last source of comfort, loses himself beneath the floorboards of the apartment, Valeria’s brave front goes with him. Her subsequent dissolve and the strain it puts on her relationship with Luis is more chest pain material, and both actors pull off little miracle after little miracle in developing a subtle emotional momentum that’s positively staggering by the close of their chapter.
What makes all this sustained depth and density of feeling even more impressive is that it continues to expand in the film’s final act, devoted to El Chivo. A former radical who abandoned his family and job as a college professor for “the cause,” El Chivo has long since turned his back on conventional human society, has been jailed for his convictions, and has a tough time rationalizing trivialities like haircuts and hygiene as a result. He lives alone with a half-dozen dogs in a rundown apartment that makes Fight Club‘s Paper Street house look palatial by comparison, and earns whatever money he needs by, um, freelancing as a hitman. But his detachment is a front: as he ages, he feels increasingly traumatized by the family and the life he walked away from, and a series of events (including the accident) busts his scars wide open.
Echevarria’s brilliant performance is like a master acting class in how to shade a character into believability. There isn’t a single thing about El Chivo that registers black and white—he’s too likeable to dislike, but too distant and morally ambiguous to champion; too bright to dismiss, but too much of a crackpot to endorse; too compassionate to write off, but too troubled to believe in. He’s a perfectly realized, perfectly conflicted, perfectly realistic person, and Echevarria’s climactic confessional monologue is the cathartic high point in a film rife with candidates for that honor.
At one point in that scene, El Chivo chokes out, “I am a living ghost.” Pooling all his muted heartache into a baseball-sized knot in your throat, this moment speaks not just for El Chivo, but for Octavio and Valeria (and possibly Luis and Susana and everybody else) as well. Iñárritu’s muscular direction and tempered optimism reveal an understanding that love is a game more often lost than won, and his characters, at three different points along the chain, will find that out, or just have, or have known it forever and are finally ready to stop being tortured by it. The cinematic channels he uses to drive that point home might be influenced by someone else, but the emotional maturity and breath-catching impact of his labor is entirely his own.