Dog eat dog world

Amores Perros a gritty triptych of violence and despair

A trio of interwoven stories set in a dystopian Mexico City make Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch) a surprisingly dark choice for an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film.

From its fractured storyline — which treats three different lives that momentarily overlap in a car crash — to its handheld camerawork and fixation on Mexico City's grimy urban underbelly, Amores Perros exudes the influence of American indie technique. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's first feature film often suggests a hybrid of Reservoir Dogs (including an opening scene lifted straight from Tarantino's blood-drenched saga, but with a canine twist) and a Mexican soap opera penned by Charles Bukowski.

While filmmakers like Tarantino or David Fincher have to strain for that just-so tone of urban blight in their noir-meets-apocalypse ambiance, the wretched human pressure cooker of Mexico City as envisioned in Amores Perros doesn't seem like artistic license. Set in the world's most populated city ("a city with inordinately high rates of pollution, violence and corruption," notes Inarritu), Mexico City is a landscape where the collision of desperate poverty with SUV-driving executives and Blockbuster Video stores maintains a perverse visual logic.

The stories in Amores Perros are linked, not only by the car crash that literally smashes up the three separate stories, but in the significant role played by the "bitches" of the film's title. Like lightning rods for human malfeasance, dogs are the innocent victims of their two-legged companions' bad deeds. The world of Amores Perros hasn't gone to the dogs: much worse still, it's gone to the humans.

Amores is for dog-lovers what Gummo was to cat people — a nightmare — as dogs become the most obvious expression of the human tendency for savagery. Some of Amores Perros' most indelibly gruesome images occur in the blood-slick backrooms and empty swimming pools that become impromptu dogfight pits. Here men drink and bet on matches that end with a limp carcass being dragged to the trash heap. In Amores Perros' first (and best) storyline, a lust-drunk, likable punk named Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal) hopes to lure his brother's pregnant wife Susana (Vanessa Bauche) away with the stack of money he's won betting on the family pet at the local dogfights.

The unifying car crash also involves a college professor-turned-revolutionary-turned homeless man, El Chivo (Emilio Eschevarría), who travels with his own posse of mutts and acts as an assassin for hire in the film's third act. The film's third crash victim — and second storyline — is a fashion model, Valeria (Goya Toledo), whose career is imperiled by that fateful smash-up, which leaves her wheelchair-bound and disfigured. As in each of Amores Perros' episodes, events quickly move from lousy to rotten when Valerie's dog disappears into the rat-infested space beneath her apartment's floorboards like some kind of cosmic payback for her affair with a married man.

The bleak storyline of Amores Perros is ably answered in its harmoniously soulless look. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto plays up the blue tones, which give the film a slick, silvery look and tend to vividly highlight bad complexions, dark circles and five o'clock shadows. Inarritu has a complementary appreciation for abject effect and knows just how to raise the outrage bar while sending a scene escalating from distasteful to putrid with canny details as when Octavio seduces his sister-in-law while her baby lies next to them in their cramped apartment. And when "El Chivo" kills a wealthy businessman in a crowded restaurant, Inarritu shows a river of his blood snaking across the griddle with a sickeningly visceral sizzle.

Despite its strengths as an evocatively dismal slice of contemporary ennui, Amores Perros is probably a little too stylized and its situations too artfully contrived for maximum horror to make its characters' struggles truly resonate. Inarritu's film has more of a fishbowl effect, where we are on the outside looking in at this parallel world and its hopelessly captive specimens. But through his ingenious construction of a horror-show-here-on-earth ambiance and his eccentric motif of dogs as the expression of humankind's cruelty, Amores Perros creates a lasting, unshakable illustration of the bitter consequence of bad behavior.