Alejandro González Iñárritu is probably best known for his American Oscar-winning hits like Birdman and The Revenant. Before he wowed Hollywood, however, he first got his career started back in Mexico with Amores perros, a gritty thriller that feels much shorter than its 2.5 hours. With one cataclysmic event as a premise, he succeeds in weaving out a moving tale of three people in unexpected crisis, keeping us spellbound even while transmitting powerful messages about hope, resilience, and redemption. This oft-forgotten debut turns out to be one of Iñárritu’s finest.
Amores perros begins with a chase. On the run from gangsters, two young men run a red light and collide with another car. In the bloody aftermath of the accident, we learn through flashbacks about the lives of three people at the scene. Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal), the driver of the car, is a young, unemployed idealist in love with his sister-in-law Susana (Vanessa Bauche). To prove his affection, he decides to earn her money by entering his dog Coffee into an underground dog-fighting ring. The person he hits, a rich supermodel named Valeria (Goya Toledo), wins money and admirers with a hugely popular TV show and billboard campaign. She’s just begun a new chapter in her life with her latest lover, a middle-aged magazine editor named Daniel (Álvaro Guerrero), and her beloved dog Richie. Finally, the first person to witness the accident, “El Chivo” (Emilio Echevarría), a former guerrilla fighter now condemned to a life on the streets, ekes out a living acting as a hitman for corrupt policemen. Spurned by everyone he knew in his former life, he relies on a group of stray dogs for friendship.
Each of these character’s lives ends up irrevocably altered by the accident. Bodies are fractured, endeavors are quashed, and all of them are forced to confront the values of their very existence. Iñárritu spares nothing in his depiction of the ugliness of his characters’ world. The Mexico on screen, far from a haven of sombreros, beaches, and tequilas, is a grimy underworld maze of rundown apartments, smelly back alleyways, and brutal crime. The shaky, jumpy camerawork thrusts you straight into this dirty environment, where even the homes of the rich have broken floorboards exposing the bare sewage underneath.
This setup gives a movie that never lets you catch a breath. With twists, shocks, and a relentless savagery, the film propels you through each of the predicaments these people face, from the jarring shock of the initial incident to the unspoken despair that gradually impinges on their subsequent actions. Fans of Pulp Fiction and other Tarantino-style thrillers will recognize this pulsing, graphic style, but even those movies, whether because of division into acts or voice-over narration, unfold as if taking place in a bounded atmosphere. Amores has three “acts,” but it has a ferocity that breaches all confines. From the very beginning, without embellishment or explanation, the story-lines envelop you in a chaotic, random world of heinous misfortune, where the simplest of actions come back to bite when you least need it. With strong acting from Bernal, Echevarría, and Toledo, this is “survival of the fittest” epitomized, vicious, chilling, and unmissable.
Beyond the thrills, moreover, lies a stirring statement on the human spirit, a statement that emerges, of all places, from the dogs in the movie. These dogs are no ordinary pets. They get shot, thrown under floorboards, injured in collisions, and bitten to death. Before long, they start to resemble the state of their suffering human masters: kicked around, abused, and mistreated by events outside their control. Indeed, the setting and the faces may be different, but the challenges of Octavio, El Chivo, and Valeria all carry the crudeness of the death duels in the underground dog-fighting ring – bare-boned, fight-or-flight struggles just to survive and maintain a sliver of dignity, all in a world that doesn’t seem to care who deserves what. It’s no coincidence that the second word of the movie’s title translates to both “dog” and “b**ch.”
Yet towards the end, these dogs finally settle into the role they’re best known for – man’s closest companion. And as they do, each of the characters discovers the meaning of the first word of the movie’s title: love. The love of a dog pushes El Chivo to abandon his wandering past and try to make amends with his daughter. The love of a dog gives Valeria the solace she needs to survive the darkest moments of an otherwise-storied career. And the absence of his beloved pet provides an unhappy capstone to Octavio’s bitter saga of love lost. As the dogs suffer, these people suffer. And with the companionship these dogs embody, these people eventually muster enough resolution to take that next step forward. Iñárritu creatively shows us the ups and downs of human existence through what would appear to be our polar biological opposite. Through the lens of an animal, we see not just life’s indifferent, almost accidental cruelty, but also its singular ability to grant new beginnings.
Amores perros works on enough levels that you could watch it as a pure thriller and still appreciate its skill. Its rawness stands out in a time when theaters are inundated with overstated CGI effects. But behind the shock and awe stands an equally raw story of humanity, the kind of exploration of human nature that takes center stage in Iñárritu’s more recent works. The fact this exploration can get a little buried in the action only enhances the whole movie’s outlook on life: messy, tough, and appalling, yet lined all around with hidden opportunities. Put together, this isn’t just a wild roller-coaster ride, but one whose every precipitous drop contains a bit of meaning. And that’s one plunge into hardship you just can’t refuse.
Amores perros (2000)
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Vanessa Bauche, Goya Toledo, Emilio Echevarría, Álvaro Guerrero
Running Time: 153 minutes
Produced by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Guillermo Arriaga