"Amores Perros" is a spectacular debut for Mexican moviemaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu - a kinetic Pop Art fresco of Mexico City in all its bloody chaos and vitality.
The way the picture intertwines three stories and bends time has made reviewers think, "Pulp Fiction." Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga Jordan has retorted that William Faulkner, not Quentin Tarantino, exerted the prime influence on the script.
Whatever the inspiration, the movie is a headlong pastiche of lower-depth melodrama and absurd black comedy. It's full of sound and fury, but it also signifies something.
The movie has dual casts, human and canine. The people range from the underclass to various rungs of the middle class, the dogs from genial mutts or gutter-bred bruisers to a pampered terrier.
Because the opening episode pivots on the brutal and illegal sport of dogfighting, and the movie's characters are willing to risk two- or four-legged lives for money, audiences may be tempted to view "Amores Perros" as a set of variations on a "dog eat dog" society.
Happily, it's more complicated and involving than that. The fate of the dogs mirrors the will, desire and strength - and sometimes compassion - of their masters.
The anti-hero and anti-heroine of the first story, "Octavio and Susana," nail down the movie's theme when they argue about running away together. Susana, Octavio's abused sister-in-law, recalls an old family saying: "To make God laugh, tell him your plans." Near the end of the movie, with mayhem erupting all around him, Octavio is able to proclaim, "God can laugh, but I still have my plans." What's most Faulknerian about "Amores Perros" isn't its structure, but its emphasis on people enduring deprivation, debasement and even their own self-destructiveness - and prevailing, at least in spirit.
Underneath the movie's depiction of urban violence and conflicted families is a portrait of men and women setting forth plans in the face of a laughing God, and trying to make them happen. The characters manage to be surprising and engaging without being particularly deep. As they stumble across each other's plans, they stretch your sympathies.
Octavio enters his Rottweiler, Cofi, into dogfights (although his brother says it's his dog) because Cofi proves himself a killer in an impromptu back-alley match, and the ring provides a quick route to ready cash.
But the moviemakers never set up too easy a rooting interest, even for Octavio and Cofi. Director Inarritu and screenwriter Jordan envelop us in the horror of the sport; they slight its risks at one moment only to point up its long-term hazards at another. They play with your perceptions of engaging canines like Cofi as well as volatile humans like Octavio's brother, Ramiro (Marco Perez).
The brilliance of the first episode is that it leaves you off-kilter, with your sympathies suspended. You're open to the excitement of each moment until that awful instant when Octavio, racing from his dog-ring nemeses, gets involved in a car wreck, killing his friend and leaving a glamorous woman screaming for her life.
The movie begins with the crash, then doubles back. By the time we see the crash a second time (it's replayed four times in all), the picture has already introduced us to Daniel (Alvaro Guerrero), the slick magazine editor at the center of story number two, "Daniel and Valeria," and El Chivo (Emilio Echevarria), the scabrous hit man who takes over story number three, "El Chivo and Maru." Valeria (Goya Toledo), the woman trapped in her car, is Daniel's mistress - a supermodel at the top of her game.
In "Daniel and Valeria," the filmmakers toy with bourgeois characters without mocking them. They convey the fragility of middle-class beauty and order.
Before the accident, Daniel leaves his family and buys a condo for himself and Valeria that seems perfect, except for a hole in the floor (he can't afford the repairs). Part of this supposed perfection is a view of Valeria in a perfume ad emblazoned on a nearby building. The poster becomes a reminder of an unrenewable past. And the hole swallows up Valeria's adored little terrier, Richie, who blithely leaps into it during a game of catch but then doesn't climb out.
Inarritu's eagerness to slow the pace and lower the level of jeopardy in order to concentrate on suffocating closeness and the terrors beneath living-room floors earned my admiration. So did Daniel, who hangs tough with the distraught Valeria, as if he can deepen their bond through sheer hope and conviction.
The final episode, about El Chivo, a cultivated family man turned left-wing guerrilla and now paid assassin, indicates what Daniel and Octavio may gain by holding onto their plans. Maybe, just maybe, they can become the men they want to be.
El Chivo can't. Not yet. He longs to connect with a daughter, Maru. She thinks he's dead, but his assassin's life precludes any contact. This prematurely aged man is like Octavio's dog, Cofi, whom El Chivo takes bleeding from the accident scene and nurses back to physical well-being. Both man and dog yearn for calm, yet each has been a lone killer too long to re-enter society.
El Chivo's apology for his life, delivered into Maru's answering machine, dips into sentimentality. But his audacious re-jiggering of a murder plot between half-brothers, and his caring for Cofi no matter the emotional toll, develop an Old Testament force.
This movie is not about Christian redemption. It's about individuals seeking their own justice and meaning, and measuring the cost of these quests. The final signature the moviemakers put on their picture registers like a shot to the heart. The dedication reads, "For Luciano: because we are also what we have lost."
Starring Emilio Echevarria, Gael Garcia Bernal, Goya Toledo, Alvaro Guerrero
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Released by Lions Gate Films
Rated R (violence, language, sex)
Running time 153 minutes
Sun score ***1/2