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21 Grams (2003)

R · 125 minutes

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by Guillermo Arriaga

 · Sean Penn
 · Benicio Del Toro
 · Naomi Watts
 · Clea DuVall

Review by Timotei Centea

With Amorres Perros, his ambitious and remarkably accomplished debut, Mexican director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu vaulted himself onto the North American cinematic stage. Now, with 21 Grams, a film even more impressive than his previous work, he establishes himself as a force to be reckoned with. The title, 21 Grams, refers to the weight of the soul, that the human body supposedly loses at the moment of death. And it is death, and the shock waves it sends through the still-living, that the film is concerned with.




The first thing one notices about 21 Grams is the unconventional structure through which the story is presented. Indeed, because of concerns both thematic and narrative, Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga decide to present the film achronologically, scattering the narrative through a temporal kaleidscope. Thus, the audience picks up the story tangentially, piece by piece: there's Christina (Naomi Watts), a former drug addict, who seems to have been affected by the death of someone near; there's Paul (Sean Penn), a professor with severe health troubles; and there's Jack (Benicio Del Toro), a religious ex-convict seemingly plagued by guilt. And there are the numerous ways in which these characters interact: one of the opening scenes shows Paul quietly smoking besides a naked, sleeping Christina; in another, they haven't even met. This structural layout works and while it is off-putting at first, it is nevertheless close to a masterstroke. On one hand, it allows for effective juxtapositioning of scenes, which serves to considerably increase the emotional charge of several sequences. And on the other, it also serves the thematic concerns of the story, replicating the chaotic nature of the characters' lives.

Any film with such a structure, however, must take care not to alienate its audience. Thankfully, the work of the cast and the crew is so effective as to allay any doubts about such a matter. In front of the camera, the performances are nothing less than stunning. Sean Penn surpasses his Mystic River turn with a performance that is both more controlled and more subtle. It's truly a pleasure to see such a normally volatile actor work so itricately and so precisely.

In a similar turn, Benicio Del Toro turns in a haunted portrayal that's never less than believable. It is Naomi Watts, though, that electrifies the screen in the year's single best performance. As the devastated Christina, she's extraordinary, hitting every note of her mercurial, multifaceted role, and more than once, she manages to bring the audience to the brink of tears on the sheer emotional strength of her performance. And while this triumverate of great performances stand front and center, it would be unfair to ignore the two excellent supporting performances of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Mellisa Leo as Paul and Jack's wives, respectively.

Behind the camera, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu and his excellent crew are also worth praising. Once again, the director manages to create a pervasively realistic atmosphere, and yet sharply stylize it. And as in Amorres Perros, much of the credit must go to ace cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto for his exceptional camerawork, and to Gustavo Santaolalla for his jazzy score.

For all these strengths, though, the film is not perfect. The structure, for one, is not entirely successful. Indeed, some scenes are not enhanced by the achronological approach, and hence the cumulative charge of some key scenes is diminished. Such is the case of the ending, a monologue that strives for a metaphysical thematic level that (while entirely relevant) is a bit at odds with the realism of the rest of the film.




Given the gritty tone and the somber thematic concerns of the story, it comes as no surprise that the film is not a film one could qualify as fun or enjoyable. However, the ambitious craftsmanship and riveting performances make the film utterly compelling from start to finish.

First and foresmost, through the structure, the filmmakers implicate the audience in the story, forcing the viewers to piece together the pieces of the narrative puzzle. This, in turn, assures audience participation, and makes for an absorbing experience.

Secondly, viewers who appreciate intelligent filmmaking will be amply rewarded by Guillermo Arriaga's script, which is replete with moral and intellectual ambiguity, and which explores them with a depth and deftness seldom seen in Hollywood filmmaking.

And finally, it is impossible to watch 21 Grams without being left breathless by the quality of the performers. The three primary performances in particular surpass the boundaries of what is normally thought of as screen acting, often achieving an ominous and even scary level of intensity and realism.

21 Grams might not be a popcorn film, but it is more compelling and -for those who enjoy quality filmmaking- more rewarding than most films in recent memory.



With this film, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu cements his reputation as one of the most dynamic new North American filmmakers. For many veteran directors, the intensity and sharpness of 21 Grams would amount to a career high; for Inarritu, it is merely a sophomore effort, and a signpost signalling the arrival of a future master.

844 Words · Published: 14 December 2003

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