Over the course of its nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime, Babel makes one point blindingly clear: Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga have mastered their signature storytelling technique of sprawling, intertwined narratives; gut-wrenching, intimate performances; and levels of transcontinental interdependency that would please both Buddhist practitioners and metaphysicians alike. Amores Perros introduced the world to the collaborators' intoxicating style of connecting seemingly disparate stories, and 21 Grams furthered their recipe for devastating filmmaking, with crushing performances from Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro. Babel is the duo's most ambitious effort yet, but for all of its many strengths, one can't help but feel that Iñárritu and Arriaga have backed themselves into a stylistic corner.
Babel tells not one but four stories, across three continents, with each hinged precipitously on each other, and each collapsing under the weight of language. There's the story of Richard and Susan (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), an American couple vacationing in Morocco, trying to reassemble their shattered marriage; there's the San Diego nanny (Adriana Barraza) who decides to bring her blonde-haired charges to a south-of-the-border wedding with her nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal); in Japan, a deaf-mute teenager wrestles with her sexuality and the wreckage of her mother's suicide; and in a tiny Moroccan village, two young brothers are given a rifle to protect their flock of sheep, in what quickly escalates into a tense, international conflict. These stories swirl into one another in ways both expected and surprising, each one picking up intensity until they collide in emotionally violent climax.
The acting here is brutally honest and affecting, with grief and terror being expressed in English, Japanese, Spanish, Berber, and sign language. Similarly, Rodrigo Prieto's camera work possesses an unparalleled immediacy, immersing itself with equal clarity in Tokyo nightclubs and Moroccan villages.
Unfortunately, Iñárritu's strategy and premise here are too familiar, having been exhausted in his previous films and lesser movies like 2004's Crash. Each strand of Babel's complex structure is uncommonly tense and gorgeous, but by fitting each one into a too-pat jigsaw puzzle, one can't help but feel like Iñárritu is resting on the laurels of a formula he already mastered.