A few years ago, “Amores Perros” exploded onto the big screen, devouring us with three intermingled stories about life, death, and dogs. What tied all three stories together in “Amores Perros” was a life altering car accident. And for director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, making his American debut, that is the same plot device that connects the three lives in “21 Grams.” But rather than tell the story in chronological order, Inarritu takes us forward and back through time, allowing us to gain insights into the characters before and after they are hit with disaster. With phenomenal performances and unconventional storytelling, “21 Grams” leaves an impression: a riveting tale of hope, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Paul Rivers is a college math professor, frenetically awaiting a heart transplant. His health is rapidly deteriorating, causing significant strain on his relationship with his wife, Mary. Further complicating their relationship is the hope that the two will one day have children together. In Cristina Peck’s world, nothing could be brighter in suburbia. A former drug addict, Cristina has turned her life around. She is a happily married mother with two adorable girls, a loving husband, and a supportive older sister. And then there’s Jack Jordan, an ex-con who recently converted to Christianity. Despite a loving wife, Marianne, and two children, Jack’s faith is periodically tested as he struggles to put food on the table for his family.
All three of these lives are tragically impacted following a horrendous car accident. Paul receives a new heart as a result, but begins questioning his own mortality; Cristina suffers a drug relapse, uncertain about her future; and Jack agonizes between his commitment to God and his duty and responsibility to his family. Each individual has to re-assess the meaning of their life, each has a need to reach out and communicate to someone, and each needs time to sort through things on their own. But all three realize that only by affirming their connection to one another, can they return to some state of normalcy. Or, in the very least, can they be at peace.
When “Amores Perros” hit the screen in 2000, the world became privy to the aggressive, gut wrenching style of filmmaker, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. In fact, Inarritu’s “Perros” along with Alfonso Cuaron’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien” began the resurgence of Mexican cinema almost single handedly. Now, three years later, Inarritu is back at it again and blowing us away with another, tragic induced drama. “21 Grams” follows in the same footsteps as “Amores Perros,” deconstructing three major storylines after a single car accident. But unlike “Amores Perros,” the storylines are not segregated and broken out chronologically. Here, Inarritu jumbles the sequence of events and tells the story out of order.
This presentation is a bit confusing at first as we are inundated with bits and pieces, scenes from the past, present, and future, and characters we are just getting to know. But slowly, the story takes hold and we are immersed in a complex web of personal tragedies. Although I am always intrigued by unique filmmaking techniques, this method of storytelling wears off about midway through the movie and becomes a little annoying towards the end, particularly after we have drawn most of our own conclusions. Furthermore, I am fully convinced that the picture would have been better told had it unfolded chronologically. But that’s my only grievance.
What makes this picture stand out most is the sensational acting ensemble of Penn, Del Toro, and Watts. These actors are so good that each scene becomes dominated by their mere presence. We suffer with them, feeling remorse, pain, and indecision. Naomi Watts, hot off the trail of the highly successful psychological thriller, “The Ring,” turns in her finest performance since “Mulholland Drive.” She’s a powder keg overflowing with an unimaginable set of emotions. And that keg is particularly volatile when approached by Sean Penn’s Paul Rivers. Penn is one of the most natural performers around and this role allows him to gently tap into his inner self and evoke an inquisitive, sensitive side as his character gains a new lease on life. But for me, the most brilliant, understated performance of the film belongs to Benecio Del Toro. Del Toro’s character carries guilt on his shoulders like the Greek Titan Atlas carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. The burden is tremendous and Del Toro’s torment is agonizing and horrifying. Gritty, intense, and distinguishable, Del Toro’s characterization will haunt you as much as it seeks your pity.
Rodrigo Prieto captures the essence of the story on a hand held camera, giving the film an edgy resolve that only enhances and authenticates the performances. Prieto plays with us, showing us symbolic imagery of a hummingbird flapping its wings, a flock of birds exiting a scene, or a crucifix dangling from a rear view mirror. This bit of foreshadowing or hindsight adds texture and makes the story more significant because of the way the story unfolds, going backwards and forwards in time. And Prieto and Inarritu even go about shooting the scenes unconventionally, oftentimes with powerful results. Such is the scene involving Naomi Watts and Clea DuVall. Upon receiving the worst news ever, Naomi’s Cristina is consoled by her father. It is overwhelmingly sad and we can hear it. But rather than focus on Cristina, the camera hones in on Cristina’s sister, Claudia (DuVall). While we listen to Cristina agonize horribly with grief, we see Claudia fight back tears until finally she gives in. This is incredible direction, the ability to make a powerful scene even more so by allowing us to visualize Cristina’s grief through the eyes of Claudia.
With an outstanding cast, a contemplative story, and strong direction, “21 Grams” absorbs you and dissects its tale of life, death, and re-birth with inventive force. Although it falters a little toward the end because of random storytelling, it succeeds because it has a story worth telling. “They say we all lose 21 grams at the exact moment of our death…everyone.” And while that may be true, this is one film that also acknowledges the weight we gain after losing someone close to us. It’s a weight that we carry the rest of our lives.