A bloody Rottweiler. A car chase. A wreck.
Amores Perros (roughly translated as “Love’s a Bitch”) begins with a series of gory facts, conveyed with deft, wrenching celerity. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga Jordan (reportedly, the screenplay went through 36 drafts over three years), the movie is a tightly edited, wildly energetic paean to the trauma of relationships, between people and between people and their dogs. The film’s Mexico City is crowded, dirty, and riven by class disparities, and the opening car chase leads through it in a way that’s half nightmarish, half hyper-realistic: you feel like you’re on a ferocious ride, but when it ends—so abruptly in these first few seconds, with metal crunching, horns blaring, onlookers screaming, and bodies crumpling—oi, the film is only just beginning.
Divided into three sections, all three leading to and from that first car crash, Amores Perros pulses with an unusual visual potency, courtesy of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (who uses a different film stock for each section). The first plot concerns the passengers in that first car, with the bloody dog: after the accident, you learn that Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his pal are on the run after their dog (wimpering in the backseat as they zoom through the city’s busy streets) has been shot by a rival dog-owner. But before you even know that much, you learn a little bit about how Octavio gets himself into that dire situation. At the beginning of his section, Octavio is living with his brother Ramiro (Marco Perez), Ramiro’s pregnant wife, Susana (Vanessa Bauche), and their baby, in a tiny apartment, along with the brothers’ mother, who daily complains about Ramiro’s perpetual poverty. He runs a drugstore cash register for a measly paycheck, but finds that he can make significantly more money robbing drugstores. In the robbery scenes, he turns less mean and more confident. Ramiro and his partner cover their faces with ski masks, then rub foreheads, an incongruously tender ritual that leads directly to an adrenalin-pumping next moment, as they dash inside the store, guns waving and spittle flying.
Given Ramiro’s extracurricular activities, at first, Octavio appears to be the less aggressive of the brothers, but as he watches Ramiro abuse Susana, he develops an increasingly obsessive, even contentious, affection for her. Disturbed by listening to them in the throes of noisy make-up sex, Octavio gets her to come outside for a made-up urgent phone call, then paws her in the hallway, unable to understand her resistance. He imagines himself her savior, and discovers that she will pay attention to him when he starts handing over fat wads of money for Susana to hide in her closet, in preparation for what Octavio envisions will be a romantic escape from their bleak existence. That Susana has a different understanding of their romance is obvious to everyone but Octavio, who is determined that his version of the story is the right one.
He expects to be right in part because, for a brief while, his life does appear to be perversely charmed. He makes his money in illegal dogfighting, after accidentally discovering that the family dog, the Rottweiler Cofi, is a frighteningly proficient killer (who then hangs out patiently and good-naturedly, while Octavio watches tv in his teeny bedroom). Vile and alarming, the dogfights dominate this section of the film, cut up into brief, edgy images and pumped by hiphop collective Control Machete’s “Si Senor” on the soundtrack. But apparently, it’s not enough that the dogfight scenes—and in particular, the after-the-dogfight scenes, which show limp, chewed-up dog bodies—are flat-out terrible to see. For the film’s U.S. release, Lions Gate has joined with the Humane Society in a campaign to discourage the activity.
The fights serve as ugly counterpoints to stolen moments between Octavio and Susana, which are in themselves anything but romantic. Rather, they are rushed and desperate, mini-respites from the rest of the day but devoid of passion. You know from the start that this section of the film will effectively end with the accident (though extra details and consequences are revealed later in the film), but it’s still a jolting transition to the next section, also focused on betrayal and dashed ambitions.
Supermodel Valeria (Goya Toledo) is driving her fancy sportscar when she’s slammed by Octavio’s car, and badly fractures her leg in the wreck. Her story involves her coming to terms with an imperfect body and ruined dreams. Stuck in a wheelchair in her new apartment, gazing out the window on a billboard featuring her long lithe legs in all their once-profitable glory. Her wealthy magazine publisher boyfriend Luis (Jorge Salinas) has just left his wife and children in order to start a fabulous new life with Valeria. But after the wreck, Valeria is at a loss, and turns away from Luis, unable to see him—or more to the point, herself—in the way she once did.
And so, she devotes her attention to her foofy little pooch, Richie. Alas, soon after moving in to the new apartment, Richie falls in a hole in the floor and then spends days whimpering beneath the floorboards, unable to find his way back: and really, he is a poor little doggie, saddled with so much symbolic weight! While he’s underneath, Valeria and Luis are just a few feet above, falling apart, angry, fearful, and mutually hurtful because they are afraid. While Valeria’s teary reactions are understandable, they also illustrate that she is incapable, at least initially, to live a life that isn’t full of excess and decadence—she is a literal poster girl for the social value of wealth and beauty, after all. The film actually pays more attention to Luis’ breakdown: in part he responds to her collapse, but he’s also facing a loss of his own—Valeria was his dream, embodied. She can’t walk, but Luis becomes impotent, unable to speak, feel, or even interact with people, now that he’s lost his accustomed self-assurance.
El Chivo’s (Emilio Echevarria) story wraps up the trilogy in a way that is at once tragic, cathartic, and galvanizing. An erstwhile professor and family man, he long ago left that life in order to be a guerilla revolutionary, only to have his idealism dashed. Now he’s working as a freelance hitman and living in a beat-down house with a pack of street dogs, whom he loves fiercely. While scoping his newest mark (who has been contracted by his own brother: yet another commentary by the film on the ongoing devastation of family “values”), El Chivo discovers that he’s having an affair with El Chivo’s daughter. The daughter is unaware of her father’s existence, having been told as a child that he died. And so El Chivo begins to watch her from distances, with remorse and self-hatred. His surveillance of her (shot to match his surveillance of the mark) makes her look like another one of his targets.
Before this dilemma arises—will he kill his daughter’s sleezeball amore for money?—El Chivo had come to a kind of peace with himself, with his focus on day-to-day survival and shut-down on all moral questions. His serenity is even more violently disturbed when he saves the Rottweiler from the car wreck, brings it home, and nurses it back to health. Cofi recovers and falls back on his training (or is it his nature?), attacking El Chivo’s other dogs. At this point, El Chivo must reevaluate what he believes and what he does.
All of these narrative strands come together in the car crash, but the fragments also stand in relation to one another. At once grandly emotional and formally efficient, the movie is also testosterone-driven, much like its most obvious predecessors, that is, films by Tarantino, Scorsese, Bunuel. But it has something else going on as well, a mix of wonder and dismay at such excesses. Perhaps more importantly, it offers a welcome antidote to Hollywoody visions of Mexico (Traffic, All the Pretty Horses, The Mexican), revealing an urban Mexico that is neither sanitized nor demonized: for all the death in it, this place feels utterly immediate and alive.