Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu is one of the world’s most electric filmmakers, and each of his new releases brings the possibility of continued greatness. Above all, he’s a director who insists on connections among the human family — direct or indirect lines from people of a wide variety of classes, ideologies, and races, that rarely intersect unless by accident. Once again, with Babel, he presents seemingly unrelated stories and characters in their own environments and on their own terms, although as we move along, we are left to draw our own conclusions. Here, we visit four different parts of the world: Japan, Mexico, Morocco and, briefly, the United States. As such, we hear four different languages, and the expected failures of communication that result. Still, despite the language barriers that cause confusion, distrust, and rage, it is the inability to understand within a common tongue that has the potential to bring about the greatest harm.
Uniting all of these characters together is a single rifle — first purchased by a Japanese man who has lost his wife to suicide, then presented as a gift to a Moroccan man after a hunting trip, later sold to a Moroccan family as a method to eliminate jackals near their farm, and finally used to accidentally shoot an American tourist, which itself spurs further tragedy for all involved. The Americans (played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, refreshingly blending in with the rest of the cast, rather than trying to be the “stars”) are in Morocco for unknown reasons, though it is clear that the wife would rather be anywhere else. She brings her own silverware, won’t use the local ice, and harbors numerous resentments against her husband. A child of theirs has been lost, but we suspect that there’s more to the estrangement than a single, identifiable tragedy. Back home, the couple have left their kids with their live-in Mexican nanny, who has a wedding to attend to Tijuana, but is forced to alter her plans when her boss calls with news of his wife’s shooting. Her decision to bring the kids along holds potential tragedy as well, though not in ways we might expect.
The movie begins in fits and bursts, and admittedly, it wavers from frustrating to fascinating over large parts of the first half. It remains captivating, however, and my failure to put it all together was my problem, not the screenplay’s. Still, the Japanese section of the story, one involving the father, but also his alienated, deaf daughter, who is experiencing psychosexual confusions of her own, is the weakest of the lot, although it presents a fascinating portrait of modern Tokyo. This is a movie, of course, and the camera is a limited tool of exploration, but from all appearances, Tokyo has fully internalized the Western mantra of “when in doubt, add neon,” yet one can still sense the old Japan continuing to fight the push of Americanized commerce and youth culture. But like the other regions we see, nothing stands out as obvious, and any theme Inarritu pushes could be thoroughly debated. Is it a meditation on barriers — literal and those we create to feel secure — in a world careening out of control? Because a weapon is the link across oceans and continents, is it a howl in the darkness against the increasing likelihood that at some point, the only thing we’ll have in common is our murderous impulse? Thankfully, Inarritu isn’t about to hand us the lecture notes.