Animal Magnetism

Dog day afternoon: Emilio Echevarría and friend in <i>Amores Perros</i>

Dog day afternoon: Emilio Echevarría and friend in Amores Perros

All I know about Mexico I learned from recent American movies. I know it's the evil empire that created our country's primary at-risk group: white prep-school kids (Traffic). I know the average citizen is a shifty-eyed, car-stealin', pistola-packin' Frito Bandito (The Mexican). I know the happy farmers grow so much wacky weed they have to stash it in sacks--and they're way friendlier than those ungrateful Colombians (Blow). In short, I have learned that Mexico is the new Wild West for slumming gringos, the crucible where white American manhood is tested yet always triumphant.

What a shock, then, to see Amores Perros and discover that Mexico City is actually...a hotbed of violence and vice! Boasting the highest canine mortality rate since Verhoeven's Hollow Man, Alejandro González Iñárritu's audacious tripartite thriller opens with a cautionary note that no animals were harmed in the movie's making--no doubt to allay the usual xenophobic fears that life is cheap south of the border. But violence against animals on film seems a lot more shocking and taboo than violence against humans--a foible this trio of intertwined stories exploits to disturbing and frequently dazzling effect.

Translated very loosely as Love's a Bitch, a phrase that's invoked both literally and figuratively, Amores Perros opens with a spectacularly jarring car crash and flips back and forth to show how the victims and onlookers collided at the scene. The three stories involve a lovesick dogfighter (Gaël García Bernal) looking for a last big score; a model (Goya Toledo) who becomes a literal homewrecker; and a hired gun (Emilio Echevarría) whose bloody deeds come back to bite those closest to him. Figuring prominently in each of the stories are dogs--most notably, a jet-black rottweiler transformed from an indoor pet into an all-too-perfect killing machine.

Shot by Rodrigo Prieto in a distinctively gritty, all-caps style (as in Traffic, the light seems to have been applied in individual pixels), Amores Perros whips up a lurid fury in its melodramatic first third, as the dogfighter defies a neighborhood gangster and his own thuggish brother to plot a getaway with the brother's wife. This segment is pulp at its most dynamic and feverish, and the subsequent stories work to maintain that momentum over 153 minutes, with rhyming plots (betrayed lovers, estranged brothers, karmic retribution) and ballsy jolts of violence. Of these, the most fascinating is also the moodiest and least predictable: the model's recuperation in an apartment, which takes on a Polanski-like perversity when her fluffy pet disappears somewhere under the floor, whimpering as unseen rats scurry closer for the kill.

At this point, it's hard to tell whether Iñárritu is a developing original or an exceptionally skilled magpie. His plotting and imagery call to mind everything from El Topo and Buñuel to Edgar Allan Poe. And while the director is no doubt sick of hearing the Pulp Fiction comparisons (he told one interviewer he was influenced more by Faulkner than Tarantino), the similarities seem about as coincidental as Reservoir Dogs' to City on Fire, right down to the closing segment of a badass's bloody path to redemption. Reviewers are praising Iñárritu, a skilled director of commercials making his feature debut, for giving the gory violence a dimension of moral gravity. But it's also deployed pretty cagily--at regular intervals, to juice up the story. A cynic might wonder if there's a single soul living in Mexico City who remains untouched by crime.

Well, maybe not. If the shootings, maulings, and standoffs in Amores Perros are undeniably flashy and visceral, they also have weight. The structure makes clear that a single act of violence ripples through countless lives, essentially staining the world--the opposite of the zipless bloodshed in an offense like The Mexican. And perhaps we're too jaded as viewers to feel the impact of that violence unless its target isn't human. The movie's most novel aspect is the linking device of the dogs, who function in the stories as the personification of their owners' vices, only stripped of self-delusion. If love, to Bukowski, was a dog from hell, love in Amores Perros is a dog that chews up its rivals--or is chewed upon by the nasty things hiding under the floorboards. In Iñárritu's desperate, blood-soaked world, love is indeed a bitch, and in danger of being put to sleep.