In "21 Grams," a brutal and brutalizing new film from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, fate is a noose that slips over the necks of the guilty and innocent alike. In this fractured story about loss and love involving three separate families, life is a series of crisscrossing lines that connect strangers to one another with merciless geometry. What gives the film a formalist kick is that the story unfolds piecemeal as a series of nonlinear moments. What gives it soul are the three lead actors who pull the pieces together with devastating power.
The film begins without credits with a man, Paul (Sean Penn), smoking in moody silence on a bed. Sharing the afterglow in a mess of tangled sheets is Cristina (Naomi Watts), a woman whose future collides with his. The hopscotching narrative makes it difficult to describe what happens next to Paul and Cristina and why, or why the two become acquainted with a third, Jack (Benicio Del Toro). Suffice it to say that all three are visited with life-changing catastrophes, some of which are directly linked. Each suffers a crushing blow that robs them of everything they had and knew. And, as in Inarritu's first feature, the rollicking "Amores Perros," what binds these characters together is a car accident -- a supremely banal stroke of bad luck.
As the film jumps from one moment in the past to the next -- from the day before to some months earlier -- it emerges that, like Jack, Cristina is happily married with two young children and that, like him, she has a history of drug abuse. Now clean and sober, she lives a cosseted life while Jack struggles to support his family as a country club caddie. A member of a poor-man's Pentecostal church, the kind built from nothing but faith and cinder block, Jack has a former addict's devotion to the straight life. He doesn't just spread the word; he crams it down every throat he can lay a chokehold on. For Jack, belief isn't just a means of salvation -- it's a fail-safe system. "God even knows," he says, "when a single hair moves on your head."
That may be true, but as Jack discovers it may not matter for the here and the now. God works in mysterious ways, or so they say, and the same is true of filmmakers. In the very same instant, Jack and Cristina's lives come crashing down around them, with Paul soon experiencing the fallout of their communal disasters. In a series of coincidences that strain plausibility to the breaking point, the three are tossed on the shoals of a conjoined fate. Strangers become friends, lovers and enemies. A tattoo of a heart adorning one character's neck somehow leads to another character's failing organ, weakly pumping out a pulse that is picked up, in turn, by a third character. If it weren't so moving and passionately played, the whole thing would be absurd -- but as it plays out, it's anything but.
Inarritu's first feature was made under the sign of Quentin Tarantino -- its giddy pop vibe and interlocking three stories were of a piece with "Pulp Fiction" -- but there's something more grown-up about "21 Grams," perhaps because here the strongest stylistic influence comes courtesy of Steven Soderbergh. As in Soderbergh's "The Limey," which races from one moment in time to the next, the fractured story in "21 Grams" rushes along like a runaway train. Soderbergh's sometimes-editor Stephen Mirrione cut this film, and his work here is superlative. Most of the scenes fit together thematically, as when a scene with Cristina sharing in a 12-step group is followed by Jack trying to preach the Bible to a gangbanger. But even scenes without obvious thematic connections hang together through visual and gestural echoes.
Because of the way the film fits together too much doubtless will be made of the film's jigsaw structure. We modern moviegoers have become so addicted to linear narratives, with their predictable and clearly delineated three acts, that the patchwork structure of "21 Grams" might well be misread as a gimmick. But the film's form ideally complements its content, not only because all the characters are in some ways haunted by the past (no wonder it keeps intruding), but because of the intense pressure and sense of inexorable fate that builds as a new piece of the puzzle slides into place. For people who suffer all-consuming tragedy, the past is never really past -- it is, rather, a screen that hangs over the present, a filter through which we direct the present and the future both.
"21 Grams" is the latest film to take up the twinned themes of loss and vengeance. (The others being "Mystic River" and "Kill Bill -- Vol. 1.") At one point, Paul, a mathematician, tells Cristina that the universe can be explained by numbers, a riff that in its insistence on the order of things doesn't sound all too different from Jack's rap about God. It's never clear if Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga believe that the universe has been drawn up according to blueprint or whether our often-pitiful and puny attempts to play God are a necessary constituency of our humanity. But the filmmakers' belief in their own gifts is certainly never in doubt. Even when "21 Grams" nearly drowns in tears -- and there are two grievously false-note scenes, both with Watts and Penn -- Inarritu's work with his actors redeems him.
There are few movie pleasures as satisfying as an actor soaring to meet the challenge of his or her gift. It's a pleasure that's delivered threefold in "21 Grams," which features a triumvirate of the cinema's most gifted actors working at the height of their respective powers. Watts, Penn and Del Toro have all been brilliant before, and if we're lucky, they will all be brilliant again. But to watch these three -- working alone and in tandem -- is to experience the strange, at times frightening alchemy of screen acting. No matter how occasionally wobbly the story, the three are something fierce. Not only because they throw themselves headlong into the fray, but because there are moments -- as in a scene between Del Toro and the actress who plays his wife, Melissa Leo -- when you wonder how actors shake off the heartache when they go home at night.
Leo, a regular on the late, lamented television cop show "Homicide," gives a performance that's as good as it gets, which indicates just how high the bar has been set in the film. It's no great news that this is the second transformative Sean Penn turn of the year, following "Mystic River." But in contrast to the Eastwood film, there's nothing iconic about the character in "21 Grams," or in Penn's performance, which the actor seems to build from the inside out.
Like Watts and Del Toro, Penn is a consummate technician, and like them he's willing to tap into the dark, ugly emotions that many actors run from, especially the bigger they get. Like the expressive cinematography, the performances are sandblasted of gloss, forcefully gritty. The film is a model of creative form, but it's these three who give it the rough and raw beauty of life.
MPAA rating: R, for language, sexuality, some violence and drug use
Times guidelines: Extremely intense emotional scenes, nudity, drug use, gun violence, adult language
Benicio Del Toro...Jack
Focus Features presents a This Is That, Y Productions production released by Focus. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Writer Guillermo Arriaga. Producers Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Robert Salerno. Director of photography Rodrigo Prieto. Production designer Brigitte Broch. Editor Stephen Mirrione. Costume designer Marlene Stewart. Music Gustavo Santaolalla. Casting Francine Maisler. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.
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