21 Grams (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

21 Grams is a stunning kaleidoscope of a motion picture - a mosaic of images that gradually resolves itself into a powerful tale of tragedy and redemption. Not only is this one of the year's most compelling motion pictures, but, in terms of structure, it's also one of the most intriguing and unique. Not since Memento has a movie so successfully employed a non-linear chronology. The jigsaw puzzle approach used by director Alejandro González Iñárritu keeps us far more intrigued than a conventional vision of identical material would.

It's difficult to provide any kind of plot summary that doesn't give away crucial details, so I'll stick to the bare facts. 21 Grams centers around three main characters whose fates intersect at a crucial moment. Paul (Sean Penn) is a math professor with a bad heart. His marriage to Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) seems as doomed as he is, but she refuses to leave him in his terminal state. She wants to have his child via artificial insemination, but, without a heart transplant, he will not live long enough to see his offspring. Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is an ex-con who has reformed his life through devotion to Jesus. But there are times, especially in his home life, when glimpses of his past personality shine through. Christine (Naomi Watts) is a happily married woman with a loving husband and two delightful daughters. She is content with her daily routine until events send her life spinning out of control, impelling her back into the drug-induced haze from which her marriage rescued her.

Had 21 Grams been presented in a linear manner, it would have been an engaging, occasionally harrowing motion picture. The themes would have been the same and the acting, which is of the highest caliber, wouldn't have been any different. Yet it would have been a fundamentally different motion picture. By piecing events together in this unconventional manner, Iñárritu forces us to pay scrupulous attention from the very beginning. We are hypersensitized to everything that occurs, and it allows us to absorb much more than we might under "normal" circumstances. Plus, we are intellectually engaged from the beginning. In that we are called upon to piece together a puzzle, one could argue that 21 Grams is almost an interactive motion picture.

At first, the movie is confusing. It's as if the filmmakers assembled about 50 scenes, all two to four minutes in length, and randomly edited them together. 21 Grams moves backwards and forwards in time and jumps from character to character with dizzying frequency. But, out of what initially seems to be a maddeningly random approach, a pattern emerges. It becomes clear that Inárritu is paving a narrative path in a spiral that curves ever closer to a series of key moments. Past, future, and present are all converging. It takes a little while, but a picture begins to emerge from the fog. Then, it's just a matter of putting the pieces in the right places.

Another strength of Iñárritu's approach is that it results in a deeper empathy with the characters. By seeing them in a wide variety of circumstances during a compressed time frame, we come to relate to them far more quickly than we would had this story been told in a chronological fashion. We know bits and pieces of where they have been and where they are headed, and this can make it feel a little like playing an amnesiac God.

For Sean Penn, this represents an amazing one-two punch alongside Mystic River. Penn might not only have given the best male performance of the year, but the second-best as well, and it's difficult to determine whether he's better here or in Clint Eastwood's movie. He's more subdued in 21 Grams, since he's playing a dying man with a guilt-ridden conscience, but the same kinds of moral issues confront Paul as those that confront Penn's Mystic River character. It's interesting to see the different ways in which the situations are resolved.

Naomi Watts has seen her star ascend quickly in the past few years (ever since she appeared in Mulholland Drive), and, with every new performance, it has increased in magnitude. In terms of serious acting, this is easily her most impressive effort. Like Penn's and Del Toro's alter-egos, her character is forced to undergo several radical transformations. And it most definitely is not a glamorous role. There are scenes where she's strung out on drugs and looks like she hasn't bathed in weeks.

Benicio Del Toro is no less impressive than either of his co-stars, although his part is arguably the least showy of the three main roles. Jack is a sincere man who undergoes a crisis of faith. The key to Del Toro's portrayal is sincerity. Jack doesn't come across as a religious hypocrite. He's someone who genuinely believes what he preaches, and feels intense guilt whenever he strays from the path. 21 Grams invites us to understand the religious mindset, not to dismiss it.

Visually, the film is dark and grainy, with a desaturated palette of colors. The music is slow and moody. All of this is appropriate to Inárritu's overall stylistic intent. Although the tone is brooding and somber, 21 Grams offers a nugget of hope through one of its themes - that of redemption, which is clearly something the director believes in. In some ways, this is similar to Iñárritu's recent outing, Amores Perros, which also reveled in the darkness of human nature and used a non-linear narrative. However, despite its multiple tragedies, 21 Grams is fundamentally more optimistic, because the characters are sympathetic. They're certainly not all saints, but we feel for them.

Few films released in 2003 can boast having as many strengths as 21 Grams. It is, in a word, amazing. It's one of those motion pictures that haunts your thoughts and won't let go. Like Memento, it virtually demands a second viewing to understand and appreciate the story's complexity and to recognize the artistry inherent in all of the transitions. I give this film my highest recommendation.

21 Grams (United States, 2003)

Ranked #3 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2003
Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2003-11-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1