A Moroccan merchant sells a rifle to a goatherd, who intends to use it to kill jackals that are attacking his herd. He gives the rifle to his sons, who take potshots at various elements in the environment while herding, checking to see if the rifle shoots as far as the merchant had claimed. Doubtful that a bullet could reach, the younger of the two boys aims at a tour bus nearly 3 kilometers away and takes a shot, not considering what repercussions may ensue. The bus stops, and the boys stare at each other in awe.
A Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), is looking after two American children. They are playing when the phone rings. The man on the other end says that his wife is doing better, and they are going to operate. Someone is flying in to look after the kids. He asks for his son, who tells him about school, then pauses and asks if he is okay. The nanny is loving, and tucks the kids into bed. The next morning, the man calls back, and says that the other person can't make it; the nanny has to stay and look after the kids. The nanny explains that her son's wedding is that night, and she really can't stay. The man is frustrated, tells her she has to stay, and hangs up on her. The nanny tries, but cannot find anyone else to look after the kids, so she packs them up, and takes them to Mexico with her, her nephew driving them.
An American couple, Richard (Brad Pitt), and Susan (Cate Blanchett), are sitting at a Moroccan cafe. She is agitated and doesn't want to be there. Richard will not argue. She accuses him of running away. She is crying, and still crying when they are riding a tour bus through the desert. Suddenly she is shot through the window of the bus; the bullet hits her in her shoulder.
A deaf-mute Japanese teenager, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), loses her temper while playing volleyball at school, and is ejected from the game. The team blames her for their loss. After the game, her father wants to take her out to lunch, but she wants to go out with her friends. He reminds her that she has a dentist appointment later that day. While playing a video game, some cute boys come up to the girls, and try to talk to them, but the girls can't hear, and do not know they are there. When the boys finally realize that the girls are deaf, everyone is embarrassed, and the boys leave them alone. Chieko is very frustrated, and when in the washroom with her friend, decides to take her panties off from under her short private school skirt. She flashes the guys when they return to their table.
The boys herding the goats are quickly bringing them home, earlier than usual. Their father arrives, and says that the road is closed. A terrorist has killed an American tourist.
The Mexican nephew, Amelia, and the kids have no trouble crossing the border into Mexico. They arrive as everyone is getting ready for the wedding. The kids meet the groom, and go off and play with some Mexican kids. They are taken aback when they witness a chicken getting slaughtered for the wedding feast.
Richard and Susan are in a panic as they try to decide where to take Susan, as the nearest hospital is four hours away. A clinic is 90 minutes away, but the tour guide's village is close by, and there is a physician there. They decide to go to the village. The other passengers don't want to stay, but Richard insists. He doesn't want to be left there with no means of transport. He calls the same person who was supposed to look after the kids so the nanny could go to the wedding, and has her call the embassy to arrange help. The village physician arrives. He determines that Susan's spine is fine, but her shoulder bone is shattered. Unless she is stitched up, she will bleed to death. As he sterilizes his needle with a lighter, we learn that he is actually a veterinarian. Susan gets stitched up without anaesthesia.
Chieko goes to her dental appointment, and keeps trying to lick the dentist. She then takes his hand, and places it on her crotch. She looks at him longingly, and is clearly frustrated by her inability to communicate. He tells her to leave immediately. When she arrives home, she runs into two police who are looking for her father. They explain that he is not in trouble, but they want to talk to him. Alone in her apartment, Chieko flips through the TV channels. We hear that suspects have been arrested in a Moroccan shooting. Chieko's friend from school arrives, and she tells her that one of the cops -- the young one -- is hot. They head out for the evening pantiless.
The two Moroccan boys hide the gun. A brutal police investigator finds some shells on the hill where the bus had stopped. From the fresh goat droppings, he determines it must have been a local. They swarm the house of the original man that sold the gun, who is beaten, and tells the police that he sold the gun to his neighbour, Aboum. The police meet the boys, and ask if they know where Aboum lives. The youngest boy sends them in the wrong direction, and they run home to tell their father.
The wedding is underway in Mexico, and the American kids are having a good time. Everyone is dancing and carrying on. Amelia rekindles her passions with an old flame.
Back in the Moroccan village, the tourists on the bus are very hot and uncomfortable, and demand to leave. Susan is agitated and in pain. The tour guide's grandmother is helping care for her, and brings out her opium pipe. Susan has three puffs, and relaxes. The grandmother obviously cares for her even though they can't communicate. Susan understands and places her her trust in her.
The Japanese girls hook up with some friends, including some guys they know who can sign, one of whom has whiskey and ecstasy-like pills. They all have a good time, and head for a disco. Even though Chieko can't hear the music, she gets into the lights and movement. Then she sees her best friend making out with the guy she liked. Angry, she leaves, but is frustrated walking down the street not able to hear anything. When she arrives at her apartment, she asks the doorman to phone the young police officer; she needs to talk to him.
The police are back at the gun salesman's farm, and are accusing him of making up the story about selling the gun. His wife shows them a photo of the tourist that gave him the gun: Chieko's father. Aboum and his two sons realize they must leave their farm. They go and get the gun and try to escape, but the police see them walking along the side of a hill. The police draw their guns and open fire. The father and sons hide behind some rocks. The older son tries to run, but is shot in the leg. The younger son grabs the rifle, and shoots one of the police in the shoulder.
The wedding is winding down, and the nanny asks her nephew to drive she and the kids home. The groom is concerned that the nephew is drunk, but he insists he is fine. They are harassed at the US border, and told to pull in for secondary inspection. Instead, the nephew takes off in the car, and is chased by a couple of border police cars. He drops the nanny and kids off in the desert, and takes off to lose the police.
Richard and the tour guide chat while Susan sleeps in the late afternoon. They tell each other about their children. The police arrive and say that an ambulance was to be dispatched, but was canceled by the American embassy. They were going to send a helicopter, but there are problems with that. While he calls the embassy to figure out what's going on, the bus leaves.
The young police officer arrives at Chieko's apartment. She shows him the balcony and explains that it is where she saw her mother jump to her death. Her cell phone flashes, and she returns inside. The police officer admires the father's hunting trophies, and we see the same photo that the gun salesman showed the Morroccan police. The police officer explains that he is not there to investigate the mother's death, but about a rifle that was registered to Chieko's father, explaining that her father is not in trouble. He tries to leave, but Chieko asks him to wait. She steps out of the room, and returns naked. She tries to get him to touch her, and when he refuses, she breaks down. He holds her while she cries.
The older son tries to run again, and is shot. The father runs to him while the younger son smashes the rifle. The son runs down to the police, and confesses to shooting the tour bus and the police officer. He says his father and brother did nothing. The father is holding the older brother's lifeless body.
It is now the morning after the wedding, and the nanny and children have slept in the desert. A border patrol car drives by, but doesn't see them. The nanny gets the kids up, and they try to find where the car went. She has to carry the daughter, but can't cover enough ground. She tells the kids to wait in a shady spot for her to go and get help. After a long trudge through the desert, she flags down a border patrol car. The agent ignores her pleas to help the children, and instead cuffs her. After some serious pleading, they return to the spot where she left the children, but they are gone. A search is begun with more patrol cars and a helicopter.
Susan tells Richard that she peed her pants, and has to go again. Richard borrows a pan, and she uses it to pee in. They promise that they will never leave the kids again, and kiss. We learn that another son of theirs died previously; he simply stopped breathing. This seems to have been the cause of their anxiety. We hear that the helicopter was held up because it was American, and was not allowed into Moroccan airspace. It is now on its way.
Chieko apologizes to the police officer, and gives him a lengthy note.
An immigration officer berates the nanny, and says the kids could have died from her neglect; she is to be deported. She loves the children, whom she has been caring for since infancy. There is no sign of her nephew. Richard has been notified in Morocco, and is angry, but will not press charges. She is picked up by her son at the border.
The younger Moroccan son reminisces about playing with his brother as he is carried away.
The helicopter arrives to pick up Susan. Richard tries to give the tour guide some money, but he refuses it. The helicopter takes Susan to a hospital, where press and suits film her arrival. The physician comes out and explains that there has been internal bleeding, and she may lose her arm. Richard phones home and breaks down crying while hearing about his son's day at school.
Chieko's father encounters the police officer leaving his building. The police officer asks him if he owned a 270 rifle that he gave to an Morroccan hunting guide. The father confirms that the guide was a good man, and he did give him the rifle. The father is concerned for the guide. The police officer tells him that he spoke with his daughter, and is very sorry to hear about his wife jumping off the balcony. The father gets upset, and tells him that she did not jump; she shot herself in the head, and the daughter was the first person to find her. The police officer says that the police won't be bothering them again, goes to a diner, and pulls out the note to read. We see on the diner's TV that Susan has been discharged from a Casablanca hospital. Her ordeal is over.
Chieko's father arrives home and sees the balcony door open, but no sign of the daughter. He finds her standing where she said her mother jumped from. The daughter takes him by the hand, and breaks down crying.