21 Grams Review

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The build-up to and aftermath of a tragic accident sees three people — model housewife, untrustworthy mathematics professor, born-again ex-con — brought together by fate. Their lives are thrown into violent turmoil and strange relationships develop, but a


A slew of contemporary classics — Out Of Sight, Memento, City Of God, The Usual Suspects, pretty much everything by Quentin Tarantino — have exploited abrupt shifts in time or character perspective to dazzle or deceive the audience.

It’s a technique founded in the work of Jean-Luc Godard and his fellow European New Wave auteurs, who used experimental narrative structures to highlight the essential artifice of film and unsettle the viewer. But with 21 Grams, Amores Perros director Alejandro González Iñárritu and co-screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga have made a quantum leap, using a fragmented storytelling technique to involve, intrigue and, crucially, move the audience.

The resulting film is a genuinely thrilling emotional experience — often unbearably tense, occasionally heartbreakingly sad, ultimately uplifting but always, always riveting.

The basic premise seems simple enough — a tragic accident brings three disparate individuals together — but from such seemingly conventional material the filmmakers weave a complex tale, exploring issues of fate, guilt, revenge and redemption.

Sean Penn’s directorial output (The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, The Pledge) has revealed his own preoccupation with these themes, so it’s no surprise that his performance here is utterly compelling. With this film and Mystic River, Penn is entering a golden period in his career, as he finally grows into the kind of role suited to his considerable gifts as an actor. As a young man, his undoubted intensity could often come across as adolescent angst or macho posturing. Now he exudes a world-weary gravitas worthy of pre-Method icons like Mitchum, Douglas or Lancaster.

In almost any other film, Penn’s performance would be the standout, but his work here is matched by his co-stars’. Benicio Del Toro excels as ex-con Jack Jordan, whose acceptance of Jesus as his personal saviour makes him a pain in the ass to his much less fervent wife and kids. Jack’s desire to do the right thing and face up to his culpability would ordinarily make him admirable, but the film is intelligent enough to point out the inherent selfishness of this moral code. The audience’s relationship with the character is constantly alternating between sympathy and contempt, between affection and exasperation. Lesser actors would be weighed down by these contradictions; Del Toro uses them as fuel and takes flight.

With two such dominant alpha male presences in the film, it would be understandable if the lead actress failed to make much of an impact. The odds are further stacked against Naomi Watts since her character — the suburban soccer mom with a history of cocaine abuse — is confronted with a succession of revelations, and must ‘do’ shocked, outraged, grief-stricken, devastated.

The unconventional structure employed means that these ‘big’ scenes are interspersed with more intimate moments, calling for more subtle execution. She rises to every challenge, connecting with the audience on the emotional terms that are essential if we’re to feel truly involved with the film’s spiritual and philosophical elements.

If Watts continues alternating work of the quality shown here — and in breakthrough Mulholland Dr. — with commercial hits like The Ring, then the title ‘finest actress of her generation’ is hers for the taking.

The film has been described as a jigsaw puzzle, but that’s not a suitable analogy. The individual pieces of a puzzle hold no value of their own, but every scene, every frame of 21 Grams has real artistic merit. The editing, cinematography and use of music are all stunning and combine with the performances (main and supporting) to form a flawless whole. The film is less like a jigsaw and more like a great novel in which not a sentence, not a word, is wasted. Iñárritu and his collaborators have created something astonishing, and your cinema-going year will be incomplete if you miss it.

Superb. It’s sometimes necessary to give ambitious movies the benefit of the doubt, critically speaking, but not in this case. 21 Grams strives for greatness, and that’s precisely what it achieves.