In this world, we are all connected by our actions.
In Morocco, a married couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) suffer a horrible accident while trying to settle their marital woes. In Japan, a teenaged, deaf woman (Koji Yakusho) struggles to deal with her mourning and loneliness in a very loud and unfriendly place. In San Diego, a housekeeper (Adriana Barraza), with her son (Gael Garcia Bernal), escorts her employer's children over the border to Mexico for a wedding, only to find getting out of the country will change her life forever.
"Babel" is intended to be the final installment of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's trilogy exploring the human condition. The first two films, "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," were stark deconstructions of pain and suffering, and while they were technically phenomenal and gritty creations, they didn't exactly unlock the curiosity of the heart.
"Babel" is Inarritu's closing act, and it tracks the chilly atmosphere of self-destruction that the filmmaker is so fascinated with. Watching "Babel," it's impossible not to be impressed; Inarritu's work depicting humanity at its breaking point is incredible, striving for realism both thematically and geographically, and scoring on both accounts. He's an intuitive director, at his best when illustrating isolation and despair, and he lines this film up well with his previous efforts, creating an open wound of a trilogy that few directors would dare endeavor to uncover.
The tech credits are just as impressive. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography matches Inarritu's passion for the drama, selling the arid grit of Morocco, the bustle and alienation of Japan, and the hopelessness of Mexico in exceptional and vivid ways. "Babel" has claustrophobic qualities to it that are suffocating and beautiful all at once. One of the best shooters working today, Prieto's pictures bring out the crucial battle of life found in Inarritu's story (written by Guillermo Arriaga).
On the surface, I can see what "Babel" is searching to do, and I appreciate its investment in character and storytelling rooted in glances and silence; however, I found the emotion of the script and direction lacking in dynamic ways. Perhaps it has to do with familiarity with Inarritu's scheme for the film, or maybe it's the ways the director seems obsessed with linking these stories together that kept me at arm's length, but I didn't sense a heartbeat to the picture.
Partially, this is due to the film's extravagant and unwarranted running time of 140 minutes. As many subplots as there are in "Babel," nothing in the film warrants this amount of attention; these are thinly drawn parables of estrangement, and while they allow for plenty of interpretation from the cast, it doesn't mean every little tic has to be included. As enlightening as he is, Inarritu is not an economical filmmaker, and his excesses hurt the impact of "Babel" in a big way.
I was also put off by the connections drawn between the stories. What begins as interesting and organic bridges built between the characters soon evolves into silly, crudely drawn intersections, like trying to connect a Lego to a Duplo. The stories are written to crash into each other at careful points in the script to best depict the fragile nature of the world's domino effect, and some succeed well, but others, including the way the production ties the Japan story to Morocco, shatter the hold the drama has on the viewer and melt away any potential emotional reaction.
"Babel" becomes so lathered up in its drama that it loses its way, and the final 30 minutes are a slow descent to nowhere. Certainly this is a viable, commendable example of cinematic drama, but I would be surprised if, after 140 minutes of grim punishment, any audience member could be truly moved by this everlasting symphony of pain.