Rated R - Running Time: 2:05 - Released 12/26/03

Mexican director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu is probably not very well known in the U.S. yet, although he received numerous awards and nominations around the rest of the world for his 2000 debut thriller, Amores Perros. He should have little difficulty getting work now, however, after releasing the gritty drama 21 Grams starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro. Filmed entirely with handheld cameras and apparently undoctored with regard to grain and color saturation, the film is as viscerally real as they come, and features fine performances by all involved (Watts and Del Toro both received Oscar nominations for their work). Telling the story of three people who are brought together by a tragic accident and are each forced to deal in their own ways with its repercussions, it is a powerful and moving drama whose story (written by Guillermo Arriaga) is not as neatly resolved as some may prefer, but certainly pulls no punches with regard to the realities of life—and of death.

The first half hour of this movie skips around the timeline with such a dizzying pace, it seems to have been edited using a random number generator. This “non-linear timeline” technique, used notably in such films as Memento, Once Upon A Time In America, and Mulholland Drive (in which Watts had the starring role), forces the audience to pay close attention to things that don’t make a bit of sense until you see what happened before them—an hour later. Some moviegoers will dislike this style; it happens to be one of my favorite conventions, but it does make it difficult to establish a bond with characters who are seen early on dealing with extremely tense situations, the details of which are yet to be known. As we eventually learn, Paul Rivers (Penn) is a heart patient waiting for a transplant while his estranged wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tries to convince him to have a baby with her before he dies. Jack Jordan (Del Toro) is an ex-con and recovering alcoholic who has found Jesus and is trying to walk the right path for his wife (Melissa Leo) and children. And Cristina Peck (Watts) is a wife and mother with a drug problem whose life was just getting back on track when her husband Michael (Danny Huston) and two daughters were killed by a hit-and-run driver.

At this point I must warn readers that it is impossible to further summarize without revealing details which are not apparent at the beginning of the film. If you are afraid that this might spoil the movie for you, I recommend that you simply skip the next paragraph until you’ve seen it.

Although the hospital authorities deny Paul’s request to know whose heart he has been given, he hires a private investigator who discovers not only that it was Michael, but also the tragic details of his passing. Unable to reconcile his guilt at profiting from someone else’s downfall, he seeks Cristina out and establishes a bond with her just when she was about to despair and dive back into her old ways. He also investigates the identity of Jack Jordan, the man who killed Cristina’s family, who is suffering his own sense of guilt about the incident, not to mention rage that God would let this happen. Eventually all three parties occupy the screen at once and we come to understand not only the full depth and breadth of their relationships, but the separate ways in which each of them handles the situation.

I suppose one way of ensuring a first-class production is to assemble an absolutely top-notch cast, and director Iñárritu has certainly done that. Penn, Watts, and Del Toro have each proven themselves over and over again, and their work here is as good as anything they’ve done before. Penn’s role, unlike his Oscar-winning part in Mystic River, is more of a character one can get behind; Paul is not perfect, but he’s a man who cares about people and tries to do right by those who have helped him. Watts is fantastic as Cristine—she is constantly on the ragged edge of sanity after losing the three people most important to her, the people who had been her salvation from her former life. And Del Toro is no less stirring in his portrayal of a man struggling with control issues, who tries against his every impulse to do the right thing, and is still betrayed by the God in whom he has put his faith.

21 Grams is about how life doesn’t always work out like it does in the movies. It’s about how bad things sometimes happen to good people, without any explanation or reason. And although it’s not a particularly uplifting film, it is intelligent, well-written, and told with a unique style, and it features some of the best acting presently available. ****½

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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