Young Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas' ambitious but frustrating directorial début, Japón, was about a lonely man's sensual awakening in a remote canyon. Using languorous long shots and pans, the director filmed nature with an attentiveness that was alternately poetic and self-indulgent. A powerful visual sense was at work, but the discipline needed to ground stylistic virtuosity in the story being told was sometimes lacking. Reygadas' second film, Battle in Heaven, abandons serene open spaces for the chaotic din of Mexico City, its locals bumping up against one another in subway cars, religious parades, traffic-infested streets, and bedrooms. The drastic shift in setting is an interesting move, but if Battle in Heaven is just as ambitious as the filmmaker's first effort, it's also every bit as frustrating-and, unsurprisingly, for many of the same reasons.

Reygadas certainly knows how to grab our attention from the get-go. Battle in Heaven opens with a young punk beauty (Anapola Mushkadiz) mechanically performing oral sex on a grimy, overweight middle-aged man (Marcos Hernández). We learn that the man, Marcos, is an army general's chauffeur, and the girl is none other than his boss' teenage daughter, Ana. The unlikely sexual relationship between Marcos, our hapless protagonist, and Ana, a coolly rebellious princess who turns tricks for fun, is one of two key developments that set the film in motion. The other is the sudden death of a baby that Marcos and his wife (Bertha Ruiz) have kidnapped and held for ransom.

The collision of these two events turns out to be too much to handle for the catatonically passive Marcos, and, unfortunately, for the director as well. Battle in Heaven's plot, dripping with sex, death, religion and politics, has the dramatic juice of a tragic opera, yet Reygadas' major error is in treating the whole thing as an aesthetic exercise. His shots-static or tracking, close-ups of nude body parts or panoramas of urban motion-are beautifully composed, but they're composed within an inch of their lives; the images are gorgeous, but feel fussed-over, calculated to be striking. Indeed, Reygadas is so busy fine-tuning his technique that he seems to forget his movie should also be hitting us in the gut. The outcome often amounts to an impressive slideshow instead of a fluid, substantial piece of work that involves and challenges us.

Rejecting narrative concerns for stylistic ones is not a problematic filmmaking instinct in and of itself. In The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick squarely resisted combat-movie conventions in favor of visual lyricism; the result was the most sublime and penetrating war film ever made. Gus Van Sant's underrated Gerry used silence and space to offer an unsettling dissection of male friendship. These films made purposeful use of style to burrow deeper into their subjects and explore them in new ways; the directors succeeded in making us grasp their stories through our senses. Reygadas, as meticulous and talented a craftsman as he is, isn't yet intuitive enough to understand how to fuse his personal approach with the project at hand.

When it screened at Cannes last May, Battle in Heaven was noted primarily for graphic sex scenes-full of sweaty, often unattractive flesh-presumably meant to show sexuality in a way we've never seen. Yet these moments, novel as they may be, are symptomatic of the movie's nagging problem: They're innovative, but what do they mean within the context of the film? If we don't understand the characters, how compelling can their sexual clinches actually be? Battle in Heaven is visually arresting, but never makes good on the considerable promise of its story.

-Jon Frosch