If you haven’t fled the theater 20 minutes into the new Mexican film Amores Perros, you’ll be hooked until the end. Pulsing with energy and wild style, it was directed by 37-year-old Alejandro González Iñárritu, a talented first-timer and former DJ who’s given his hometown of Mexico City a commercial beat to which the rest of the world can easily groove. To that end, the film is as free of the stunned-by-the-sun torpor and fog of Catholic mysticism familiar from many Mexican films as it is absent genuine aesthetic risk. The guiding principle here isn’t Arturo Ripstein, the country’s reigning art-house auteur; it’s Quentin Tarantino, although, because the setting is Mexico City, where the streets are apparently even meaner than they are in Hollywood, it’s not just bullets that tear into flesh, it’s dog teeth. Ripping, cutting, killing — the dogs of the film’s nastily punning title tear into one another until their muzzles are foamy with gore. The great German philosopher Walter Benjamin once wrote that every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism — it’s a tenet for which Amores Perros seems made to order.
Part of the film’s kick is its structure, three separate but thematically linked stories, each involving humans and the dogs that mirror them (usually for the worse): a killer rottweiler, a fluffy white dust mop, a fraternity of broken-down strays. The film opens with a nod to Reservoir Dogs, only this time it’s a hound bleeding in the back seat, not Tim Roth; the Tarantino influence continues with the film’s three-part form, though with fewer narrative kinks than Pulp Fiction. The first story, a grubby love triangle with two brothers and one wife, is the hardest to take, though less for the illicit humping than for the sight of dead dogs pulled from the fighting pits like trash, their slack tongues jutting obscenely. The human characters are Octavio (Gael García Bernal), his feral older brother, Luis (Jorge Salinas, as terrifying as any pit dog), and Luis’ wayward, emotionally blurred wife, Susana (Vanessa Bauche). Like the rottweiler, or the stinging scorpion of legend, all are disastrously true to their nature.
Iñárritu doesn’t indulge these unhappy three — whose story tries for something bigger, more meaningful, than soap-opera squalor — but neither does he treat them with contempt. The rest of his characters aren’t as lucky, especially the supermodel of the second story (Goya Toledo), who seems to earn her comeuppance simply because she’s a willowy blond in love with her own smashing beauty. (It probably doesn’t help that she looks as northern European as Susana looks indigenously Mexican.) Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga struggle to obscure their sadism under a patina of politics — it’s no accident that the woman, the indulged mistress of a rich married man, pampers that lap dog — but the story is so drawn out, so needlessly cruel, that it comes off more sour than smart. In a film in which form trumps content at every juncture, it’s no great surprise that the model’s ill fortune has the feel of a calculated gesture, a stratagem rather than an angry, radical cry from the heart.
In this precisely, impressively controlled debut feature (Iñárritu either has fantastic discipline or his heart beats very slowly), everything looks and moves just right — the actors, the dogs and the camera never take a wrong turn. But there’s something overly studied, almost clinical, in how it all pulls together. The coarse grain and saturated colors, especially in the first and third stories, are meant to give the film a rough authenticity, something like street flavor, but the story is too-well-polished, hermetically sealed, so that the visual grit feels inorganic, applied rather than owned. That wouldn’t be anything to carp about if the film, unlike the American independents it resembles, didn’t also try to prove its seriousness by pasting on some spuriously left politics. In the end, it would be easier to forgive the film its reductive, almost gleeful social Darwinism — dog eat dog, man kill man — if Iñárritu and Arriaga admitted that they were less interested in the misery of their characters than in telling a kick-ass story.
Iñárritu has, in fact, been defending his film’s use of violence since it premiered last year at Cannes; since then, he’s also had to weather the sort of rhetorical overstatement that can smother a film with expectations. In one comically obtuse New York Times Magazine profile, the writer went so far as to declare Amores Perros the “most ambitious and dazzling” film to emerge from Latin America in the last 30 years, a statement that gets at the desperation now inherent in so much entertainment journalism rather than at the film’s true merit. That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t a fine night’s entertainment, the kind with images that lodge in your head and refuse to budge, simply that it won’t change your world, cure you of cancer, help you find God. It’s good and good-looking and features one of the best soundtracks in years (it’s been in my car stereo for months), but it’s also slick and schematic, weak on feeling and overly indebted to Tarantino — which means it, too, is enamored with its own icy cool. When blood spills onto a griddle, the director makes certain that we see it sizzle.
Some movies make Australia seem like the last place in the world that any sane person would want to visit. The grotesquely violent, horribly funny film Chopper is one of them. This first feature, written and directed by Andrew Dominik, is loosely based on the books of Mark “Chopper” Read (played by the Australian comic Eric Bana), a real-life career criminal whose insanity can be measured by the bodies he left in his wake — as well as by his own ears, which he had sawed off in prison. Read, who now lives on a farm in Tasmania after spending much of his life in prison, seems to have been cursed with a disorder that made him hurt people for no reason. Or if there is a reason, Dominik isn’t telling. That can be frustrating — why, you wonder, did Read shoot that guy in the leg? — but it leaves the film free of the sort of fusty explanations that are often trotted out as excuse, or rationale. Read was simply nuts, as far as Dominik is concerned, and committed unforgivable atrocities — or at least he said he did.
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Whatever the case, there are no real mysteries in Chopper, either in terms of narrative or of Read’s psychology, no excavated childhood horrors, no sociological implications. Instead, there is the surrealism of the man’s life itself, first in a Melbourne prison — where Read and his two mad lackeys go even madder, idling against the bleached white of a cell in which blood, when it pools, looks nearly black — and later during his freedom. Let loose in the world, which seems as painfully inhospitable as jail, Read initially bounces between the sepulchral family manse and wreaking havoc at a neighborhood pub athrob with strobe lights and fear. Then he writes a best-seller, which, in the scheme of things, is probably the last crime he will commit against the world.
Chopper is outlandish in story and style, colored with bilious greens and piss-yellows that perfectly match the nauseating, incredible spectacle at its center, this comedian and nightmare rolled into one thuggish package. In one scene, Read calmly eggs on his jailhouse ear surgeon with “Just get on with it, you fucking fairy!” In another, he screams at a dying man he’s just stabbed, “You are such a show pony!” Both scenes are funny and awful, as physically discomforting to watch as they are absurd. Dominik and Bana manage to make us laugh at Chopper, to find humor in his grotesque behavior, not because the evil he did was a joke but because it was not. If we laugh at the absurdity it’s because life is absurd and, finally, beyond human comprehension. Dead, the chicken will run around without its head; alive, Chopper Read ran amok without a heart.
AMORES PERROS (LOVE’S A BITCH) | Directed and produced by ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ IÑÁRRITU | Written by GUILLERMO ARRIAGA Released by Lions Gate Films | Citywide
CHOPPER | Written and directed by ANDREW DOMINIK | Produced by MICHELE BENNETT Released by First Look Pictures | At the Nuart (This is an adults-only booking.)