On the surface, "21 Grams" refers to the alleged amount of body weight
someone loses after they die. As in real life, such an explanation
is not nearly as simplistic. An attention-demanding, heartwrenching
drama about three unconnected people brought together in unpredictable
ways following a fatal car accident, auspicious filmmaker Alejandro
Gonzalez Inarritu (2001's "Amores Perros") penetrates into the darker
corners of the human condition. Following the ti tle theory, he further
questions exactly what those 21 grams hold. Is it the weight of the
human soul? Is it the weight of a person's sins? The guilt they have
harbored over the course of their lives? And, furthermore, is redemption
a possibility in life when everything you have known suddenly crumbles down around you?
Until its revealing final moments, these questions (and their answers)
hang over the film with a palpable dread of increasing hopelessness.
Told completely out of chronological order and designed with a level
of expert complexity as revelatory as any motion picture this year,
director Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga thrusts his unsuspecting
viewers into the middle of the three lead characters' lives, interweaving
the past and present to form a complete and satisfying narrative.
The unconventional style may be disconcerting at first, as scenes
from wildly varied moments in their lives are shown at apparent random
before any sort of story has unvei led itself. At the half-hour point,
however, as the stakes are accelerated and the puzzle pieces begin
to reveal themselves, the film finds its groove. By the end, a conclusive
storytelling whole has been achieved out of a wholeheartedly one-of-a-kind
technical style. The result is as emotionally devastating as it is
The overriding power and incalculable plot developments that "21 Grams"
ultimately holds makes it difficult to discuss in detail; giving too
much away would be criminal to prospective audience members. What
can be said is that Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a dying man with a
serious heart ailment whose wife, Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), wants
nothing more than for him to artificially inseminate her. Cristina
Peck (Naomi Watts) is a once-stable mother and wife who has become
unsocial and deeply depressed, masking her severe pain in heavy-duty
drugs. And Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) is a family man who finds
his devout belief in God and f aith suddenly being put to the test.
The catalyst for these life-altering experiences is a car accident
that, in dissimilar ways and under different circumstances, deeply
affects Paul, Cristina, and Jack.
The leading trio of performances rank as some of the standouts of
the year. Leading the pack is Naomi Watts (2001's "Mulholland Drive"),
courageous and unflinching in her portrayal of Cristina, whose appearance
and psyche metamorphoses in such stark ways that it has to be seen
to be believed. The emotions Watts evokes on her journey are so raw,
and she handles them in such honest ways, that some of her more dramatic
moments are difficult to even watch.
In a vast improvement over his overrated turn in "Mystic River," Sean
Penn is sheer perfection as Paul, a man wrestling with his own dwindling
mortality who finds life in the most unex pected of places. Penn is
unusually understated in his portrayal, and his low-key approach to
a person who tries with all his might to keep his emotions at bay
is astonishing in its effectiveness.
As Jack, an ex-con and Catholic who has just begun to put his life
back together when an abrupt event leaves him spiraling down into
a sea of unbearable guilt, Benicio Del Toro (2003's "The Hunted")
delivers a focused, imploding, frighteningly tragic performances as
remarkable as his Oscar-winning work in 2000's "Traffic." The road
Jack ultimately decides to take, which he at first believes to be
the most virtuous under the circumstances, only makes his guilt worse,
alienating him from his wife and children in the process. The unblemished
supporting cast includes Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Paul's wife, Mary;
Melissa Leo, as Jack's frustrated wife, Marianne; a nd Clea DuVall
(2003's "Identity"), as Cristina's concerned younger sister, Claudia.
Above all, "21 Grams" is a fascinating, existential study of the way
a single event, for better and for worse, can irrevocably affect people's
lives. While one person loses seemingly everything because of it,
another is given a second chance at life. After all the cards of fate
have been dealt, can one possibly pull themselves out of the sort
of despair for which there doesn't seem to be a possible remedy? And
is the good fortune of another truly good, or simply a temporary stay
of execution? While the purpose of the film's unchronological design
is sketchy at best, there is no doubt that it wouldn't have held the
same piercing impression without it. "21 Grams" is a challenging motion
picture, and one that may require a certain amount of patience from
those viewers used to having their stories and characters handed to
them on n eat silver platters from the very first scene to the last,
but the reward for sticking with it is an imaginative, heartbreaking
filmone of 2003's bestthat you won't easily forget.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman