Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has re-teamed with his Amores Perros screenwriter Guillermo Ariaga for this English-language film headed up by three name actors — Naomi Watts, Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro. And while I hate to come up with anything so obvious, I’m bound to say that a little something seems to have gotten lost in translation.
The title to 21 Grams refers to the weight a body loses at the moment of death (which some people attribute to the weight of the soul). And while this is without a doubt a fine film in its own right, I didn’t find it to be in quite the same league as Amores Perros. And it’s not easy for me to say why.
The acting is first rate. To begin with, I would never have believed that Sean Penn was capable of anything as marvelously subdued. You can keep all that screaming and breast-beating scenery-chewing in Mystic River, which was exactly the performance I expected from Penn here. But far from it: His performance is sad, somber and convincing, without Penn ever falling back on his bag of ersatz-James Dean tricks. Whatever Inarritu did or didn’t accomplish with 21 Grams, he got the performance of a lifetime out of Penn.
The director seems to have had a not-dissimilar effect on the frequently less-than-understated Del Toro. Or it’s just possible that neither actor felt up to the challenge of outdoing Naomi Watts in the dramatics department, since there’s nothing very subtle about her performance here — which is as it should be, because it suits the character and her circumstances.
The story — crafted by Inarritu and Ariaga — is similar to Amores Perros in approach and structure. And as in that previous film, the entire premise is grounded in a series of coincidences — or, if you prefer, a series of fatalistic events — that lead to the characters’ otherwise-improbable interactions. The viewer is required to accept the reality of these developments at face value. It’s remarkable that this daring idea works — or at least it succeeds in both Amores Perros and 21 Grams. The key, I think, is the radical structure of both films, with 21 Grams the more radical of the two.
In Amores Perros, Inarritu follows three separate stories that finally intersect in relatively minor — but intriguing — ways. The effect is strikingly similar to Luis Bunuel, especially to his 1974 film The Phantom of Liberty. However, 21 Grams takes this approach not one but two steps further.
Not only do the three stories completely integrate into a larger one, but the time frame has been knocked out of kilter, so that the narratives are not presented in a linear manner. The viewer is forced to sort out the story from different bits of information being presented in an often-random manner. We see part of a scene, and then many scenes later, we are given its import.
Sometimes, the revelation of later significance is shattering — as with a seemingly inconsequential phone message in the film. In this, Inarritu is like Bunuel if he’d suddenly turned into David Lynch. Though in the end, it’s unlike either filmmaker; Inarritu is more traditional. He develops his narrative in a fragmented fashion, presenting us with a kind of mystery story — and one that is far more effective than any recent, genuine attempts at the genre — where we’re made to wonder how the events we’re watching came to be and are related to one another, because they’re presented in a nonlinear fashion.
This fragmentation gives the film a weirdly hypnotic quality, creating a far more realistic sense of an actual memory than any straightforward approach could have hoped. Though not unlike Lynch in this regard, Inarritu differs in that he ultimately solves his mysteries — well, most of them — and doesn’t leave them dangling in space for our interpretation. And that’s both good and bad: Such resolution is more traditionally satisfying, but it raises the question of how much is left after his film gives up its mysteries. On that point, I’m not exactly settled.
How much of 21 Grams rests on this unusual structure? And without it, would the film hold our interest? That’s a hard call, and it may not matter, since the structure is a part of the film. And yet I can’t help but wonder how the movie would seem if its story were told in a standard chronological manner. The structure, I believe, is what gives the film its undeniable resonance — that, and the characters.
Penn’s mathematics professor, Paul Rivers, charts everything in formulas and knows exactly how to calculate the percentage in anything; yet he can’t keep himself from sneaking a cigarette even while he waits for a heart transplant to become available. This not only suggests a man perhaps disillusioned with the cut-and-dried world of his chosen profession, but it sets the stage for his subsequent insistence on finding out whose heart he has and how his unwitting benefactor died, and for his insinuating himself into the good graces of the dead man’s widow, Cristina Peck (Watts).
In this area, Inarritu keeps some of his mysteries to himself, since he never clearly identifies what’s driving Rivers’ character. The director does suggest that in many ways, Rivers is so disenchanted with his own life that he jumps at the chance to “become” his benefactor. That reading also helps explain the character of Jack Jordan (Del Toro), an ex-con who is trying for a new life as a — frequently misguided — born-again Christian. Similarly, Christina might be viewed as attempting to reinvent herself in various self-destructive ways after the death of her husband and children, while Rivers’ wife, Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg, My Wife Is an Actress), is vainly trying to reconstruct herself and her marriage at a too-late date.
In the end, the film’s greatest achievement may be its examination of how events and choices cause us to try to rethink who we are, and to make right in some way the wrongs we’ve done — or even think we’ve done — to ourselves as well as others. Viewed in this light, 21 Grams carries a far greater impact than it might at first seem to suggest.
Yet, ultimately, Inarritu leaves it to the viewer to draw the answers to the many questions his film raises, which may be just as well. The director may, in fact, have no answers — though there’s no denying he knows the right questions. And that may be more important.
Even when the film doesn’t quite jell — and there are a few points where it simply doesn’t — it’s impossible to escape the sense that we’re in the presence of a developing filmmaker who’s taking us places we’ve never been. And that makes 21 Grams a definite must-see all by itself.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke