An impressive sophmore feature from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, "21 Grams" not only attempts to tell a story in the non-linear fashion Quentin Tarantino made popular again ten years ago, but to take things a step further by literally shuffling scenes from the get go. It's a puzzle and, instead of getting big chunks locking into place, there's a few hundred pieces scattered on the floor. It's a somewhat frustrating approach at first, but we're given enough information that we can start to go to work on the story fragments we're given.
There are a few main characters: Paul (Sean Penn) is a math professor with a bad heart. He desperately needs a transplant, or he won't live to see the child that Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) wants to have with him via artificial insemination. Christine (Naomi Watts) is a former addict whose happy, healthy marriage has pulled her out of the fog. Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is an ex-con whose newfound devotion to Jesus has (mostly) changed him.
A tragic accident brings the lives of all of the characters together, then sends them all into a downward spiral. It's difficult to give away any other information than the basics if I don't want to ruin the details of the story. Which I don't. The picture's fragmented narrative eventually does slide into a a slightly less disjointed style of presentation, but it's to the credit of ace editor Stephen Mirrione ("Go", "Traffic") that the film maintains a rhythm and the fragments are pieced together in a way that's usually satisfying and involving. I still sort of wish the DVD had some way to show the story in a linear fashion, but the supplemental section of the disc doesn't even have a trailer.
The film's real strength is lies in its performances, which I think are among the best of 2003 (Del Toro and Watts were nominated for Oscars, while Penn was nominated for "Mystic River" instead. I'm rather surprised that Mirrione was not nominated for editing.) I'd be surprised if anyone isn't convinced by this point that Naomi Watts isn't a huge talent. Her performance here as a woman coping with tragedy, desiring revenge and battling her past demons is richly, fiercely portrayed and wonderfully compelling. Del Toro is superb as a newly religious, reformed invidual who has his faith shattered. Penn plays guilt, sorrow, hurt and anger as well as he often does in an excellent performance. All three are terrific, but it's Watts that really, truly amazes.
I'm still a little skeptical about whether or not the film's very fractured narrative was necessary, as part of me feels the film may have been more effective and powerful had it gone the conventional route. The structure could have been a complete failure in less talented hands, however, but the demanding (especially early on) style largely holds together. Given the outstanding performances and powerful, moving moments in this film about redemption, mortality and other themes, concerns such as the structure choice seem less of an issue.
VIDEO: "21 Grams" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen by Universal. Shot by Rodrigo Prieto in a mildly grainy, somewhat harshly-lit, stark style that reminded me somewhat of Soderberg's "Traffic" (only without the color tints), "21 Grams" appears to be accurately presented here. Sharpness and detail are largely terrific, as the picture appeared very well-defined and crisp with only a few minor exceptions.
There is considerable grain visible in the image at times, but this appears to be an intentional element of the cinematography. A couple of instances of very slight compression artifacts were spotted, but it was nice to not see any noticable instances of edge enhancement throughout the movie. The print appeared free of any dirt, debris or wear. The film's subdued, moody color palette also appeared accurately rendered, with no smearing or other faults.
SOUND: "21 Grams" is presented in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. This is a very forward-oriented soundtrack, mostly just focusing on the film's dialogue. Surrounds are hardly used, and extremely subtle when they are. Score and dialogue are cleanly and clearly presented, although a couple of instances of yelling sounded slightly harsh.
EXTRAS: The DVD includes no supplemental features - not even a trailer.
Final Thoughts: While I'm still unsure of whether or not the film needed its non-linear approach to storytelling, "21 Grams" still offers a heartbreaking tale that's lead by three of the strongest performances I've seen in recent memory. Universal's DVD edition really fails on the supplemental section (a featurette on the editing choices and challenges would have been nice, at least), the audio/video quality is quite good. Recommended.