By the time I heard about Amores Perros — in the context of it being widely praised as "the Mexican Pulp Fiction" — I was so worn out on hyped-up but pallid knock-offs of Quentin Tarantino's style, that I dismissed it without a shred of interest. Since then, of course, the director who debuted to that unpersuasive acclaim has become a major force, winning back-to-back Oscars for Best Director in the last two years. With ambitious projects like The Revenant, Birdman, Babel and 21 Grams, there's no doubting that Alejandro González Iñárritu is a filmmaker of distinct vision; even though I found Birdman grating, it was still admirably ambitious, and his other movies have fared much better with me. With my goodwill for Iñárritu fully restored by The Revenant, I went into Amores Perros this month with only a modicum of fear that it would be yet another derivative and uninspired Tarantino bandwagonner. Thankfully, its degree of debt to that overplayed trend in indie film-making was just a foundation, with its overlapping stories proving to be freshly appealing and amply representative of the original voice of its first-time director.
Amores Perros finds dark and often violent intersections between love, family, and dogs, in three stories of betrayal that literally collide. In the first chapter, "Octavio y Susana", a young man (Gael García Bernal) attempts to woo his bullying brother's wife (Vanessa Bauche) with money won from dog fighting. In "Daniel y Valeria," the movie's most unusual and fresh segment, a man (Álvaro Guerrero) leaves his wife and daughters for a model (Goya Toledo), but their first night together in their new apartment is interrupted by disaster. In the final story, "El Chivo y Maru," a vagabond (Emilio Echevarría) who supports his pack of dogs as a low-rent hit man finally decides to face his own family issues. In each of these stories, one or more characters makes a difficult, selfish choice, and everything goes badly — especially for dogs. I'm sure I've never seen a movie with this high of a canine body count. Dog-lovers may want to pass.
While Iñárritu did not yet have the means, and perhaps the seasoning, to show off the kind of visual ambition that has marked all of his movies since 2006's Babel, Amores Perros is, right from the start, assured and engaging in its storytelling. While it features more than a few creaky Post-Tarantino tropes — a crisscrossing ensemble, sudden bursts of violence, largely unsympathetic characters redeemed by tragedy and even nastier adversaries — there's a solid enough sense of original purpose that it never feels like mere leftovers but something organically inspired. Amores Perros even trumps Pulp Fiction in the arena of thematic cohesion: whereas Tarantino's breakthrough hit was full of ultimately empty allusions to a deeper meaning, Iñárritu's movie consistently prods at the emotional and physical chaos that results from forsaking family bonds in favor of external gratification.
Amores Perros, is, however well-made and refreshing and stocked with subtext, still somehow not quite a complete package. As finely thought out as the thematic connections between its stories seem to be, there's something a bit mechanical about them, as if some of Inarritu's careful planning smothered the lifespark of his movie into semi-consciousness. It's also just barely fun, which is an element that can lift a movie in this genre far above its station. A movie like Pulp Fiction can afford to pile up literary red herrings when it positively crackles with energy, surprises and wit. Iñárritu's approach has alway been a shade too self-serious and heavy, and that can cause problems for this kind of epic, sprawling B-movie, which needs a soft touch of gleeful mischief about it. the cast is solid through and through, and the personal charms of Bernal, Bauche, Guerrero and Toledo are considerable assets of which Amores Perros makes good use. Echevarría is quite good, bringing real pathos to a striking role that is otherwise the most artificial and pandering part of the movie. With just a slight adjustment to its chemistry, Amores Perros could have been a masterpiece of its genre; as it is, it's a startlingly strong debut.