Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's first English feature is one of the year's most original and best-acted films


21 Grams

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Written by Guillermo Arriaga
Starring Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts
Classification: 18A
Rating: *** 1/2

The second feature from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his first in English, 21 Grams feels like a story with its protective skin removed, both painful and tender in extremes.

One of the most original, and certainly among the best-acted films this year, 21 Grams focuses on people on the verge of dying, having survived death or grasping at the slender threads of new lives. (The title refers to the difference in weight between a living body and a dead one.) Though not depressing, because nothing this good is, the film is haunting -- a walk on the razor's edge between life and death.

The one essential distancing device from such raw experience is the fractured narrative structure: We are introduced, rapidly and apparently randomly, to a series of charged emotional vignettes, moving back and forth in time, involving two men (Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro) and a woman (Naomi Watts). Ever so gradually we are allowed to understand how their lives converge around a central cataclysmic event.

In Inarritu's acclaimed previous film, Amores Perros, three stories proceeded consecutively, occasionally intersecting, and converging on a traffic accident. 21 Grams has the same writer (Guillermo Arriaga), and the same bravura, relentlessly inventive cinematographer (Rodrigo Prieto) and, once again, a traffic accident as a central event.

Inarritu switched to a tough and dirty American urban setting (Memphis, though it is unidentified) and the English language, but audiences must work much harder at piecing the parts together. (The editor Stephen Mirrione, of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic fame, is obviously a key player here in assembling the labyrinthine structure.)

Compared to Inarritu, Christopher Nolan's Memento and Gaspar No's Irreversible are even more obviously gimmicky. Whether or not one accepts the implications of Fate in the film, it superbly captures the sense of experience on the edge of consciousness, impaired by shock or exhaustion or intoxicants, where the continuum of experience is broken into shards.

The three figures are Paul (Sean Penn), who speaks, at the film's beginning and end, in voice-over. He is in the intensive-care unit of a hospital, contemplating which of the people lying on gurneys around him will be the first to succumb. We eventually learn that he is a math professor, whose English wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is anxious for him to donate sperm so she can have a baby, presumably after he is gone. Tied to her by his illness, but emotionally detached, he struggles to avoid this dubious kind of life after death.

A woman named Cristina (Naomi Watts) has given up her wild past for domestic comfort -- an affectionate architect husband, two daughters. She channels her energy into swimming every day.

Finally, there's the darkest, most tormented figure, Jack (Benicio Del Toro), a recovering alcoholic and ex-con who is fighting even larger demons. He has become a devout Pentecostal, obsessed with the idea that Jesus has saved him for a new purpose. His wife (Melissa Leo) is happy to see him reformed, but alarmed by his religious extremism -- especially when he forces his daughter to turn the other cheek after his son smacks her at the dinner table.

Guilt, retribution and terrible loneliness pervade each of their lives. For Jack, the ex-con, Jesus throws him one too many impediments when the rich folk at the golf club decide he has to be fired as a caddy because of his prison tattoos. In the case of Paul, it comes in the form of a heart transplant, a reprieve (perhaps temporary) and a conviction that he owes his life to another's death. His new lease causes him to refigure his life with his wife, and to seek out a kind of payment for his new life. Cristina is both a woman doubly cursed, not only because of her terrible luck, but because she believes in her own worthlessness.

There are moments when the long arm of coincidence seems to stretch pretty far in 21 Grams, though in retrospect the movie is much more about weak choices and sequences of causality than is initially apparent. Paul, too, uses Fate as an alibi: "There are so many, many things that have to happen for two people to meet."

In his case, one of those things was hiring a private detective. There are devices familiar to melodrama: Clint Eastwood's Blood Work, and even Bonnie Hunt's comedy, Return to Me, employed the idea of a heart transplant as a kind of romantic debt. It's a morbid conceit, but also aphrodisiacal, as the movie's eerily erotic scene attests.

21 Grams' scenes hangs together less by causality than by a series of emotional associations. The violent middle of the story is withheld until the end of the film. The internal dynamics between performers are fascinating. A pair of macho explosive actors, Del Toro and Penn, are almost painfully passive here, holding themselves in.

Penn might not be most people's idea of a math professor but he manages it: His anger is intellectualized, subtly contemptuous and, when it comes to flirtation, cunning. Physically, he's weak and halting. Del Toro -- beefy with unwashed hair and a glazed expression of wounded belligerence -- is just the kind of perpetual victim you would be afraid to help out.

With both of the men wrapped in emotional shackles, that leaves Watts to carry the angry energy of the film; she's as changeable here as in her last important performance, in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Occasionally, the emotional effort seems strained, but she shows skills beyond the range she has ever demonstrated before.

There is a certain amount of letdown in 21Grams, partly a result of its formal ingenuity. As the puzzle begins to be exposed, the initial alarmed intrigue is replaced by recognition of the familiar -- a superior melodrama, run through the Cuisinart and re-assembled. 21 Grams is a film that, arguably, doesn't end terribly well (the final Sean Penn monologue feels too pat). But of course, where anything ends, or begins, remains the film's central question.

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