This review was originally published on the first version of Looking Closer, at the Promontory Artists Association website, in 2002.

Well, this is going to be tricky: Amores Perros deserves high praise for its thoughtful, meaningful storytelling. But it should also be introduced with a caution.

This is brutal, heavy stuff: a hyperviolent movie against violence. I encourage you to think twice before you put yourself through the wringer of this movie. Just as the villain of Apocalypse Now looks into the evil abyss of his own heart and gasps, “The horror! The horror!”, so this debut from director Alejandro González Iñárritu stares unflinchingly at the cruelty humans exhibit toward each other and to animals.

While a lot of wickedness is displayed in graphic detail in this film’s three interlocking stories — it includes a graphic portrayal of infidelity in a story that treats marriage as sacred, and a tale of murderous sibling rivalry in a story that celebrates family — the film emphasizes how desperately we need to be tender, compassionate, and forgiving. And its searing vision will leave you reflecting on the value of every human life, even the most depraved life.

Like Pulp Fiction, Amores Perros focuses on three stories about criminal behavior.

It begins with the story of a young man who wants to rescue his brother’s abused wife, and to escape the oppressive evil in their home. But first he must find enough money to afford the escape.

The second story is about a rich married man who has an affair with a supermodel, which leads to devastating consequences.

The third follows the life of a mysterious vagrant whose heart, hardened by a life of violence, is slowly cracked open, driving him to a moment of crucial decision.

Each of these stories focuses on people who do the wrong thing and pay the penalty, or people who do the right thing in a very wrong way, and pay the penalty. Perhaps some of these people, driven to crime either out of bloodlust or necessity, will learn from the harsh consequences of their actions and become better people. Perhaps not. But what makes this film so difficult to watch is a very baffling and unique characteristic…

There are dogs everywhere.

And the dogs are as important to the story as the large cast of human characters. Almost everyone in this movie seems to have an important dog in his or her life. And the way people treat their dogs is an interesting and undeniable commentary on how they treat each other.

Caution: One of the film’s stories deals quite graphically with an illegal dog-fighting ring, and the camera does not shy away from bloody dog carcasses — but a message at the beginning of the film insists that no animals were actually harmed, and I sincerely hope that’s the truth.

If you’re like me, you’ll want to scream for the madness of these bloody, unconscionable games to stop, as street gang punks launch their pit bulls and Rottweilers at each other to the death. While clever editing spares us any scenes of actual bloodletting, there are plenty of sickening close-ups after the fights are over.

Many people will disapprove of this movie because of these scenes. Many of those same people will not say much about the violence between humans in the film. Why? We see people mistreat each other constantly, on television and at the movies.  We may not like it, but I’m willing to bet most of us, myself included, have become a little numb, a little calloused. I can intellectually justify why I appreciate certain highly violent films, but I cannot justify how I have let my emotions grow dull in response to such portrayals. There are feelings that should rightly flare up when witnessing human violence. Even when it is a villain that is bleeding. The audience, myself included, cringed and became somewhat sick at watching dogs half-dying or dead. Why was I not equally injured, or more so, to watch the way these family members turn against each other, the way these people use and abuse each other?

I think that there is something in this contrast that accomplishes the movie’s primary objective. It reminds us what we should  feel towards each other. It exposes our hard-heartedness. (Don’t get me wrong: I’m not not saying movies should not portray violence. I am saying far too many movies portray violence excessively and irresponsibly, without giving us room to feel what we should feel about it. Thus we become accustomed to it. And it takes heavier and heavier shocks to wake us up again.)

Amores Perros immerses you in a world so dark you end up craving the light… so that when you see glimmers of it, when a bad guy suddenly and strangely pities his own enemy, when a liar suddenly realizes that he is his own worst victim, when a killer suddenly comes face to face with the truth about himself… you find yourself grabbing onto that thread of virtue and saying “Yes!” Love is the answer.

Overall, Iñárritu’s first movie is impressively powerful. He gets first-rate performances from a wonderful cast; I hope I see these actors again. His camerawork reminded me of Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant cinematography in Traffic, and his characters are as starkly drawn as Tarantino’s in Pulp Fiction. Other critics have noticed the influence of Bunuel. I heard echoes of Kieslowski’s Decalogue and Three Colors trilogy (with one obvious connection to Red).

But this director is far from working with the subtlety of Kieslowski in his moral storytelling. It’s easy to shock an audience, to hammer home a moral lesson by showing the consequences of evil.  In the way he uses dogs throughout the movie, Iñárritu is giving us something to think about. Beyond that, though, he is heavy-handed. This movie shouts: “Look at how miserable the unfaithful married man becomes because of his affair! Look at the consequences of a supermodel’s vanity! Look at the consequences of using evil to accomplish something good.” If Iñárritu learns some more restraint, and if he trusts his audience to think for themselves, he may become one of the masters.

While the onscreen violence towards animals would give lasting nightmares to a lot of people I know, there are others who won’t see the truth unless it hits them in the face like a baseball bat. Maybe… maybe somebody will be in the audience who is lying to his wife. Maybe somebody will be dreaming of doing a little bit of wrong in hopes of getting out of a jam. Maybe there will even be someone prone to solving problems with violence. This is the kind of movie that might make them go home, look in the mirror, and see themselves for what they are becoming.

I am grateful I saw Amores Perros. It made me feel ashamed of my own hard-heartedness, and challenged me to ask myself questions. How can I re-sensitize my heart, after becoming numb from the violence in the news, in the movies, and in rush-hour traffic? No, Amores Perros isn’t the subtlest movie I’ve seen. But it was certainly a wake-up call for me. And I believe it might be for others as well.