Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo, Clea DuVall. (2003, R, 125 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Dec. 26, 2003
The three characters that make up 21 Grams’ combustible core all suffer from obsessive behavior. Their obsessions include religion, revenge, alcohol, cocaine, cigarettes, swimming, the living, and the dead. Some of their obsessions are character-specific, some overlapping, but all three are obsessed with the dead – the same dead. An accidental death jags these dissimilar lives into the same orbit: Jack (Del Toro), a recovering alcoholic, an ex-con, and a born-again Christian; Cristina (Watts), a wife and mother who attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings for cocaine abuse; and Paul (Penn), a mathematics professor with six weeks to live. The connection between Jack, Cristina, and Paul is simple enough – X causes Y, which causes Z – but the structure of 21 Grams intentionally obscures that simplicity. The film starts near the end, jumps around in no discernible order, jogs back to the beginning, winds its way toward the accidental death, propels toward a very bloody climax, flash-forwards to a series of conclusions, and finally finishes with a glum shot of an empty swimming pool. And that’s the Cliffs Notes version. Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu (in his first English-language film) is no stranger to unconventional storytelling. His debut feature, the breathless Amores Perros, had a three-act Pulp Fiction-like structure that amplified the drama, rather than distanced it. But 21 Grams’ chaotic plotting creates a distracting suspenseful element. Early on, there is a shot of Cristina snorting up in a bathroom; next time we see her, she’s at an NA meeting, beaming about the moral support her family brings her. The viewer doesn’t know what to make of the juxtaposition. Is she a liar? Or does the one scene not follow the other? (The latter – the cocaine binge belongs, literally, three-quarters to the end.) That means a lot of time is spent – possibly wasted – puzzling over what’s going on and how it relates to what’s gone on before and after, which does nothing to enhance one’s understanding or appreciation of the film. 21 Grams is still powerful, due to the undeniable artistry of the camera and the performers. There’s no use singling out one of the actors – strung-out Watts, eyes run over with red lines like cracked earth; Del Toro, ricocheting from menacing to mournful in seconds; and Penn, coiling and coiling until there is nothing left to do but blast out – all three give their aching all to these rules. Iñárritu’s ill-conceived plotting can’t dull the potency of their performances – they’re simply too good. But it does defuse what is – at heart and linearly told – a devastating and weighty picture.