Babel is one of those occasional movies that aim to be a little “high-concept”, exploring new ways of storytelling in movies, usually to express an idea rather than tell a direct plot. It’s left up to the viewer as to whether they absorb the message, or indeed what message they absorb. Crash was one of those that proved to be successful enough with viewers and critics alike; it remains to be seen if Babel will quite achieve the same.
The story starts in the Moroccan desert, in a thread that forms the core of the movie. There are two or three other threads, depending on how you choose to look at it, which throughout the movie illustrate the idea that we affect each other more, and across greater distances than that which we commonly perceive.
What some might consider spoilers follow, so if you’re sensitive to those things, don’t read on =)
The core “trick”, you might say, is that one thread of the story touches another, which touches another, and so on in turn, demonstrating a kind of butterfly effect. Unlike Crash, the effect doesn’t loop, but that’s not necessarily bad as doing so might stretch credibility, as the locations are spread across the world. Like Crash, though, the timeline is slightly offset, so while the events seem to be simultaneous, there’s cues to tell where in the sequence of events a particular thread belongs.
The Moroccan desert forms the core push of the story, but it’s linked to a story unfolding in Southern California and Northern Mexico, and the final thread is in Tokyo. The impetuous for the movie is when two brothers playing with a rifle shoot at a bus to “test the range”, as it were. The younger brother is an excellent shooter, and the elder resents him for it. Inadvertently, they shoot an American woman in the shoulder, critically, which forms what might be thread number two, or to my thinking more an independent part of thread one, as both are in the same location and much more linked by timeline. The woman (Cate Blanchette) is travelling with her husband (Brad Pitt), but there’s clearly some tension or difficulties in the air, all of which come to an abrupt halt when she’s shot.
Thread number three is that of a Mexican nanny taking care of two white kids in San Diego. She lives in the same house, and talks to the kids in Spanish, showing clearly how close they are. She has her son’s wedding to attend, but the parents haven’t returned, so she’s forced to take the kids along.
Finally, thread number four is that of a deaf-mute teenage girl (Rinko Kikuchi) in Tokyo who is struggling to feel accepted in the “normal” world, and recovering from her mother’s death. Somewhat inevitably, she feels like her acceptance is tied up with sex, and we see her reaching, desperately, for it.
I won’t get into the intricacies of the plot, as that’s one of the best things about the movie – the connections slowly reveal themselves, and in doing so drive home the key moments. However, the Tokyo thread has the weakest connection, and really reflects a whole story by itself; the other threads all reflect a more political message, and are somewhat brutal in their details. The deaf-mute’s story is a lot more personal and emotional, and I struggle to see why it is ultimately in the movie. That’s not to say it’s bad – indeed, I think it’s the best thread in the movie, and that’s not just because I am generally enamoured of things Japanese.
It’s the thread with the strongest characterisation, and also the one that asks the most questions of the viewer, and in turn leaves the viewer asking the most questions of the movie. In one scene, the girl enters a club, the music pumping, lights flickering and people enjoying themselves. Suddenly, the scene is plunged into silence, and you realise that how she perceives it – it’s a little confronting. Good acting on Kikuchi’s part ensures you buy the premise. It all feels a little Lost in Translation, but without the conclusive ending. Indeed, the only questions that remained at the end were of the Tokyo thread, and I really wish he had wrapped that part up as well.
The other threads are open-and-shut, for the most part, and they’re the ones used to drive the broader message of the movie. While this message is never clearly spelled out, it’s there for anyone to read, and I found it to be an effective vehicle.
Ultimately, it’s a bit of a niche film, and prone to despair inducing, but with some excellent acting. Occasionally labouring the point a little, but it plays out well and leaves us appreciating the world a little more.