April 24, 2004
Alejandro González Iñárritu,
Starring: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo, Clea DuVall, Danny Huston, Carly Nahon, Claire Pakis, Nick Nichols, John Rubinstein, Eddie Marsan, Loyd Keith Salter, Antef A. Harris, Marc Musso, ,
21 Grams (2003) is a postmodern pastiche that focuses on the lives of three deeply flawed people whose lives have been shattered by a pivotal event that connects them in ways they couldn’t possibly have imagined. They are lost, adrift in a world that is harsh and unforgiving.
The film starts off wide, circling around the characters. Cristina (Watts) is a wife with two children and a drug problem. Jack (Del Toro) is an ex-con who has been in and out of prison his whole life and has found God. Paul (Penn) is the recent recipient of a heart transplant. As the film progresses, it gradually zeroes in on the event that affects their lives.
21 Grams is a challenging film to watch because of the structure Inarritu imposes with a fractured style of editing. He constantly cuts before and after the pivotal event, disrupting time and showing what these people’s lives were like and how it changed them. At first, the jigsaw nature of the film is distracting as the cast’s brilliant performances are chopped up. What is Inarritu trying to say?
The deeper one goes into the movie, the more the experimental structure begins to make sense. The fractured framework of the movie mimics the selective memory process and how one can block out the twenty-four hours before and after a traumatic event. This style keeps the audience off-balance, guessing and anticipating the crucial piece of the puzzle that will make sense of everything.
There are some great, intense performances by all three leads. Sean Penn plays a concentrated, withdrawn character that is obsessed with the source of his replacement heart. It is another thoughtful performance by the actor. Behind those of eyes of his, he seems to always be contemplating something. Naomi Watts does an excellent job of portraying a woman devastated by personal tragedy. It is a raw, unglamorous performance as Watts tears herself down emotionally, proving that Mulholland Drive (2001) was no fluke. Benicio Del Toro has the toughest role because he is the catalyst for everything that happens to the three main characters. He also plays the least likable character: a man who is a deeply devoted religious man-to a fault. What happens to him makes him question his faith and his purpose in life.
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Like Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (2002), 21 Grams is a daring, experimental film. Stylistically, they are polar opposites. Gerry utilizes long, uninterrupted takes with a very minimalist approach, while 21 Grams is heavily edited with short scenes and a lot going on. And yet, in their own way both films try to push the cinematic envelope. In this age of predictable, formulaic Hollywood movies, 21 Grams is quite an accomplishment. It refuses to play things safe and features gritty, fearless performances by an amazing cast.