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21 Grams is the story of three lives linked by death. Told in a circuitous way (the scenes are not arranged chronologically), the film allows the viewer to experience the disorientation of the three main characters as they cope with the aftermath of a hit and run car accident. Intense, dark, and powered by three fantastic performances, 21 Grams is one more step towards greatness for director Alejandro González Iñárritu.
I have mixed feelings about Iñárritu. I thought Amores Perros was an outstanding debut film, but I don't think the director cared about his characters and the film lacked a definitive message or thesis. After seeing Iñárritu's appalling contribution to the 11'09'01' shorts, I was convinced he was one of the most callous, immature filmmakers I had ever been exposed to (his short was nothing more than long stretches of black inter-cut with footage of people jumping to their death from the World Trade Center). 21 Grams suggests Iñárritu could one day become a great filmmaker. It is more coherent than Amores Perros and it actually has something of value to say; however, the success of the film is largely due to the outstanding performances by the three lead actors.
Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, and Benicio Del Toro make up the trinity of suffering in 21 Grams. Each character has or will undergo a significant personal transformation, and each has their lives torn apart after a hit and run car accident. Cristina (Watts) is a former hardcore party girl who gave up drinking and drugs for a peaceful family life. She loses her husband and two daughters when they are accidentally run over by Jack (Del Toro). Jack is an ex-con who became a responsible member of society after finding faith in Christianity. The accident makes Jack question his loyalty to God and God's loyalty to him. The character of Paul (Penn) begins his reformation as a result of the accident. Paul suffers from a terminal heart condition and it is the heart from Cristina's husband that saves him.
Discussions of faith and religious symbolism run rampant in 21 Grams, but never to the film's detriment. Writer Guillermo Arriaga skillfully weaves fate and faith into the fabric of the film and only calls on them when necessary. In one particularly powerful moment, Jack's wife accuses him of using religion as a false reality; a way to make overly simplistic assessments of complex situations. She shouts, "Life has to go on, with or without God." Later, Jack will struggle with the realization that he gave up crime and sin in order to live a better life. Yet despite his best efforts to be a good person and a Christian, his life is still terrible. In the end, all three of the characters resolve to lead better lives but still end up miserable: the victims of bad luck or God's wrath or however you choose to see it.
21 Grams is, without question, a film you have to be in the mood to see. Besides the intense subject matter, the structure is that of a speck swirling through a flushing drain. If you've seen Soderbergh's The Limey, you know what I mean. The film jumps between the stories of the three main characters, but it also moves backwards and forwards in time. This allows for a few interesting juxtapositions, but not as many as one would hope. In one sequence, Jack exhibits harsh discipline to his children around their meager dinner table, and the very next scene is of Cristina's mild, middle class family baking in their spacious kitchen. It's an interesting pairing, but it's also fairly obvious. The time-shifting decreases after the accident and the heart transplant. To continue with the drain analogy, all the characters and elements of the film are brought together as they spiral toward the end.
The most outstanding thing about 21 Grams is not the story, nor the structure. It's the acting. What really makes this film a work of art are the performances by Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and, most notably, Naomi Watts. All three actors deliver an intensity rarely seen on the big screen. Sean Penn, as the ailing Paul, audibly wheezes in a way that is painfully authentic. Del Toro explores every part of his meaty role as the reformed criminal and is so self-righteous there are times you want to reach out and throttle him. But the most remarkable performance in the film, perhaps the best this year, is that of Naomi Watts. In the hands of a lesser actress, Cristina would have been a melodramatic and whiny mess, instead she is an incredible character full of complicated and even contradictory emotions.
That said, at the one hour and 50 minute mark I was exhausted by this movie and all of the characters. I think some critics mistake intensity for quality and if a movie makes them feel emotionally beaten after two hours, then they give it an extra half-star. Not for me. There was a time when I listened to nothing but Bauhaus, The Cure and Joy Division and as I result, I like to think I am somewhat of a connoisseur of the Dismal Arts. With 21 Grams Iñárritu loses his grasp at the last second and turns an emotionally intense film into an emotionally draining one. This, combined with the aforementioned short film, leads me to the conclusion that Iñárritu will one day be a great director once he can master the emotional insight and control exhibited by his actors.
-Megan A. Denny