Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Starring Rinko Kikuchi, Adriana Barraza, Brad Pitt
Babel is one of those movies one wants to reward because of its boldness, an irrational confidence all-star which belongs in the same stratum as Cloud Atlas. Babel is less affecting, I think, and less compelling. It doesn’t call for us to be curious about what’s going on, because if the stories are so distant (“distant”), then they must reconnect somewhere in transparent ways. (All of them do within the first hour or so, incidentally.) But Babel, even if it’s not terrifically engaging until its last half hour, seems to work on all the technical levels, from editing to cinematography to sound to acting in particular. Inarritu holds us over with Gael Garcia Bernal’s indecent cigarette-chewing charm, the blood pouring out of Cate Blanchett’s shoulder, the strange and full-bodied anger of Rinko Kikuchi, the expressive and defensive grief on Boubker Ait El Caid’s face, the pulsing score from Gustavo Santaolalla. Babel is one of those movies that was an Oscar darling when it came out despite not receiving much critical devotion—I think there was already a “We won’t get fooled again” vibe post-Crash—but it has aged well, maybe as well as one of Inarritu’s movies can hope to age.
The movie’s first gut punch is at the border station at Tecate, where Santiago (Bernal) and his aunt Amelia (Barraza) are crossing with two American kids in the back seat. Amelia has babysat and cleaned and cooked and cared for Mike (Nathan Gamble) and Debbie (Elle Fanning) for just about their whole lives, and on the occasion of her son’s wedding she has no one who can watch them. They come with and experience one heck of a day, exciting and funny and a little bloody, thanks to the chicken that Santiago kills right in front of Mike. They are asleep in the back seat of the car. The view flashes over to the border patrol agent (Clifton Collins, Jr.) and over his head we can see a pair of familiar faces. One of them is George W. Bush’s official portrait; the other is Dick Cheney’s. In 2006 this is a smooth political statement—Bush and Cheney, by now deep in the stink of what certainly seemed like it would be America’s worst presidential administration—about the rough and inhumane policy of foolish and inhumane men. When Santiago, drunk and spooked by the needlessly aggressive agent, decides to take off, it’s under the eyes of Bush and Cheney. Babel is maybe a little more impressed with its connections of people across three continents than it should be, but what it’s getting at is what feeling and responsibility look like in a globalized world.
When this film was released, I’m not sure that most adults had the words “globalism” or “globalization” in their systems yet, or at least had not grown up in a world in which it meant something more than “Made in China” or “Drafted to fight in Vietnam.” The American sense that other people across the world were not merely headlines but forces was built by NAFTA, by 9/11. And Babel calls attention to the global spread of materiel and people with a controlled and incisive eye. A rifle belonging to a Japanese businessman is given to a Moroccan, who sells it to a neighbor who keeps goats, whose sons shoot down an American tourist whose children are brought to a Mexican wedding. Borders are crossed, with relative levels of success. The attack on an American tourist in a Muslim-majority country means that the word “terrorism” gets bandied about by the American government. If Babel seems unrealistic, it’s because it’s a butterfly effect movie about human beings, and while we’re intellectually comfortable with the idea of weather patterns changing because of a butterfly, we are deeply and personally unsettled by the idea that one of us watching might have had such an effect thousands of miles away. Greater connectivity impugns us; the more tied to one another we are, the more responsible we are for one another. The businessman, Wataya (Koji Yakusho), is being looked for by the Japanese police throughout the movie. His daughter, Chieko (Kikuchi), assumes it has to do with her mother’s (presumably suspicious) suicide, and when she talks to a sympathetic and handsome young detective (Satoshi Nikaido) about it, he’s surprised and repeats a phrase that we hear an awful lot. Your father isn’t in any trouble, he says. We just want to talk to him. What Babel wonders is just how much trouble Wataya should be in; the movie stops well short of calling what Wataya does criminal, but it’s impossible not to consider what happens to Susan (Blanchett) as something like a hockey assist.
In keeping with the movie’s up-to-date politics, it’s worth noting that even if the main characters of the story are adults, a great many of them are children. In 2011, fully half of the world’s population was twenty-five or younger, and that covers many of the story’s primary actors. Bernal and Kikuchi were both older than twenty-five when the movie came out, but their characters are both meant to be younger, and in Kikuchi’s case significantly so. Mike and Debbie are little kids who have soccer practice to go to. Somewhere between them are Yussef (El Caid) and Ahmed (Said Tarchani), who watch their father’s goats and fight over everything. Yussef, handsomer than his older brother, is his father’s favorite. Ahmed insists on shooting the family’s new rifle first after his father, Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi), tries to give Yussef the first shot. Ahmed misses the target; Yussef hits it on the first try. The reason they become involved in the lives of the Jones family is because they are careless with the gun, shooting at a tour bus in the distance just to see if the bullet will reach that far, never imagining that they could hurt someone with a modern high-powered rifle. Their carelessness is the carelessness of children, even if in other ways they are mature enough to work full-time or, in Yussef’s case, to carry on a proto-incestuous flirtation with his sister (Wahiba Sahmi). In comparison with their international compatriots, Mike and Debbie are expressly innocent types, no more or less well off than Chieko but much more sheltered than her. Chieko is desperate for experience, given to sexually explicit actions which range from amusing, like licking her dentist and getting kicked out of her appointment, to painful, like trying to seduce the cop by approaching him nude. (One of the movie’s great flaws is that while it finds reasons for Chieko to be angry, it never looks for a reason why she should throw herself into these situations. Teenagers are randy, but most of them stay away from potentially criminal sexual behavior while learning how to handle that; if the reason she’s so worked up has to do with her mother’s death, I think we need some evidence which would help us appreciate why this is his grieving process. It didn’t hurt Kikuchi, so far as I know; she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress primarily for the one-two punch of “show up naked” and “play someone deaf.”)
After so much strife—the fear that Susan will die, or the fear that Susan will lose her arm, the fights Richard has with his fellow tourists about keeping the bus in a little village, the missing Jones kids in the desert, the deportation of Amelia, Chieko’s naked sobs in Detective Mamiya’s arms—Babel has an ending which is happier than expected. This is not to say that everything turns out right, because it certainly does not. The poor suffer much more than the rich. The police manage to track Abdullah’s sons through some solid offscreen detective work and through some brutal and onscreen interrogation. They open fire on Abdullah, Ahmed, and Yussef, who have gotten word that the police are coming for them and are clambering over the mountain in the hopes of escape. We know already that Abdullah and Yussef will be taken into custody, thanks to the slightly out-of-order events of the movie (which is a winning strategy in practice, even if on paper that sounds self-defeating); we find out what happens to Ahmed, who is hit early and killed. Amelia has some of the most stirring scenes by herself once Santiago has dropped her off with Mike and Debbie in the desert. She goes away from them to look for help; when she returns in police custody, they’ve gone. We never see the children found, although the movie tells us that they’re recovered. She takes a tongue-lashing from the officer behind the desk, unable to do much more than mutter responses about how she’s always cared for the children, they’ve been like her own. At this point she is rough. The red dress she’s had for years is beyond repair not just from the dirt and sweat but from the rips and tears. Her face is melting. Barranza, like Kikuchi, racked up a Supporting Actress nomination, and this one feels much more honest if for no other reason than the fact that Amelia is probably the single most normal person in this movie. Her deportation is less tragic than what happens to Abdullah and his family, but the last we see of her is her return to Mexico and to her son, to a country where she hasn’t lived in almost twenty years. The story of the globalized poor in Babel is primarily the story of physical instability and danger which can be shattered into unspeakable trauma thanks to one imprudent choice.
The rich, on the other hand, find that things work out, at least on a physical level. Susan leaves the hospital without any lasting harm short of her broken clavicle; the arm that a doctor warned Richard that she might lose because of the internal bleeding is as attached as ever. Richard and Susan and Mike and Debbie have what is probably the worst week that this family will ever have, which isn’t nothing, but all of them are alive and all of them return home to an affluent life in San Diego. The movie lingers and ends with Wataya and his daughter; still naked, she is looking over the balcony of their apartment in their ritzy skyscraper. She reaches for her father’s hand; he holds it and then holds her. It is the image we speed away from in the end, but it is the one we are meant to take note of as a final thought: unification, and everything that the film places under that purview.