A Heart-wrenching Puzzle
Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu marks his English-language film debut with 21 Grams, a soul-searching follow-up to his equally impressive career debut, Amores Perros. Both films utilize fractured narratives to unravel a plot about three individuals whose lives intersect due to a tragic car accident. In 21 Grams, Iñárritu employs a strong cast of actors (Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro) in bringing to life a simple story of fate, human suffering and faith in one's religion.
I call the story simple only as a description of the basic premise itself, not as an account of the movie as a whole. While the plot is indeed actually quite simple, (it could be boiled down to about 20 minutes total), watching the story unfold in a nonlinear fashion is actually a fun process of discovery that takes hard work and undivided attention, but provides untold satisfaction. Although this storytelling technique – brought to prominence by Memento – is beginning to wear a bit thin, using it in this film makes sense. It directly mimics the fractured personalities of the story's characters.
Iñárritu's true artisanship and filmmaking skills should not go unrecognized at Oscar time. With 21 Grams, not only does he successfully take on the formidable emotions of love, hate, death, coincidence, revenge and salvation, he also manages to fill the film with thought-provoking metaphors and intellectual questions about morality. But don't expect answers. Watching 21 grams becomes a two-way process! To see the true depth of Iñárritu's creativity one need only look at his explanation of the film's title, an explanation that comes at the end of the movie. Iñárritu proposes that 21 Grams refers to the weight of one's soul. That's heady stuff.
It's difficult to describe the plot without revealing major spoilers, but here goes. Sean Penn plays Paul Rivers, a mortally ill college professor who receives a heart transplant from a man recently hit and killed by a car. Paul's relationship with his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) teeters precariously, as she wants to save his life for one reason only -- so that she can become pregnant with his child.
Paul's curiosity compels him to hire a private detective to track down the man who donated his heart. This leads Paul to former drug addict Christina Peck (Watts) with whom he falls in love. Folks, get ready for Watts's performance! She's absolutely phenomenal in the role of a loving wife and mother faced with a situation beyond her control. One of her scenes gave me chills. The last time that happened was seeing Keisha Castle-Hughes in her Whale Rider school recital scene.
Further down the socio-economic scale is habitual criminal Jack Jordon (Del Toro). He and his wife, Marianne, struggle to provide for their children while Jack reaffirms his commitment to God. Jack's faith and his determination to stay straight come under serious challenge after a tragic accident with far-reaching implications.
How does a filmmaker follow up such an accomplished directorial performance as 21 Grams so early in his career? Just another unanswered question right now. But unlike many of the questions posed in 21 Grams, moviegoers will eventually find the answer to this one.
(Released by Focus Features and rated R for language, sexuality, some violence and drug use.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.