21 Grams

4 stars


2nd January 2005

Following the mighty Amores Perros must have been a Herculean task for director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu; luckily, he hasn't strayed too far from a winning formula, as 21 Grams shares its predecessor's themes of life, love, revenge and death, as well as its central plot device of a car crash spread over three intertwined stories.

First of all we're introduced to Paul Rivers (Sean Penn), a mathematician in dire need of a heart transplant and a reason to keep living - he's certainly not getting one from his estranged wife, who is seemingly only in the picture so she can sire his child. When Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) has her life turned upside down after her husband and two daughters are mown down in a hit and run accident, her husband's heart is donated to Rivers, and through Paul's fascination to know where his transplant came from, the two meet and eventually bond over shared loss and loneliness. When it becomes clear that Peck simply can't forget about the tragic accident, rage overtakes reason and the pair turn their attention to the driver who unwittingly killed her family, reformed ex-con Jack Jordan (Benecio Del Toro). Himself alienated from his wife and small children, only Jack's rapidly fading belief in God keeps him from suicide.

A straightforward story based around a simple concept, yes, but the manner in which it is told is anything but; scenes are rarely shown in chronological order, cut together in such a way that it's not entirely clear at what stage in the characters' lives we're entering. The method seems jarring and unnecessary at first but as the story unravels from the inside out, important plot points become revealed and early scenes that seemed out of place eventually become clear. It's debatable whether the jagged structure of the scenes benefits the story as a whole (one could argue the picture would lose nothing told in a conventional manner) but like Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, it's heartbreaking to see the characters fortunes fluctuate from relative happiness, to despair and back again, all in the space of a few minutes. It's telling that the most important scene, the car accident, is never actually seen, but its reverberations echo throughout the entire picture from beginning to end.

While the skewed narrative is at first a little disorientating, three towering performances keep the story constantly engaging and interesting. Naomi Watts is stunning as Peck, encompassing terrible tragedy, self-loathing and misguided hatred in one sorry mess - her face pale with sadness and eyes heavy with fear, the poor girl must have exhausted herself in producing such a fine performance. Penn is quietly reserved as Rivers, a man living on borrowed time who is not particularly deserving of respect or pity - it's what Penn does best, and his complicated character is fully rounded and explored to its fullest. Del Toro is superb as usual, Jack Jordan's conscience hung heavy with the actions of his past and his future uncertain thanks to a wavering belief in Jesus. Although the three central roles often threaten to overshadow some important supporting players (Peck's husband barely has any screen time at all, likewise Rivers' wife), all three actors put in career best turns as characters that refuse to fall into clich'.

21 Grams is unflinching in its portrayal of life's most important themes, and as such makes for pretty bleak viewing. However, if you want to see one of Mexico's finest directors working with some of America's finest actors, crafting a story of intense power and sadness, then this is a film that demands to be seen.

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