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Nik Huggins

Published March 5th, 2004 | by Nik Huggins

21 Grams Review

Classification: 15 Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu Rating: 3.5/5

The miniscule value suggested by the title is by far the lightest thing about 21 Grams. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s first English language film (he garnered international acclaim after Amores Perros) is a sobering drama of survival that follows the shattered lives of three disparate individuals irresistibly brought together in one single moment of tragedy.

A complex narrative style renders the plot largely incomprehensible for the first 45 minutes. Instead of being shown indicators of what is going to happen, the opening scenes, apparently stitched together with no causal links offer nothing more than an undiluted insight into the three primary characters. Benicio Del Toro is the imposing former convict who has found god, Jack Jordan. He is struggling to hold down a job and hold his family together in the wake of a life spent as a career criminal. Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) has moved on from her wayward, drug-dependant past to the perfect, settled family life. She is the dutiful wife and mother of an affluent homestead. Mortally ill and awaiting a heart transplant, college professor Paul Rivers (Sean Penn who never seems to have a bad day at performance rock) is living on borrowed time, and hoping that he can something borrow something else in order to get his life back.

These three main plot strands provide initially separate arenas for the overall story to be pieced together. A devastating accident then causes these threads to start converging and we begin to piece together the main drive of the narrative. This one defining moment of the film, which we are never allowed to see, is the conduit through which all the film’s thematic intentions pass, and has an immeasurable impact on the three protagonists. It also exists as the turning in the careful and exacting script, where having received so much information about character the emphasis suddenly shifts to narrative, as the fallout consume Jack, Cristina and Paul, and force them into corners that contain equally tragic consequences.

As you may have already gathered, this unfamiliar and complicated way of telling a story is difficult to grasp immediately, and requires a lot of concentration on the part of the audience. This format, which is the films blessing and its curse, is prevalent in the Latin American novel and therefore presents North American or European viewers with a structure that is less easy to latch onto immediately. It also provides the stylistic reason why 21 Grams is not exactly a Saturday night popcorn flick. It simply will not wash right over you. The film requires active participation and, with this in mind, you might want to choose your opportunity to see it carefully.

If you decide to take part, and embrace the frustrating rigidity of 21 Grams, a very powerful film emerges, a film that is ultimately rewarding but demands a lot of strength to endure. This sounds derogatory, and it isn’t intended as such, but the raw emotional content of the film and the rough-hewn visual style, compounded with the odd storytelling method increases the burden. Strong performances from the leading players (no one lets the side down) greatly enhance the sense of gloom that bellows out from the core of this movie. Penn and Del Toro are characteristically excellent as troubled souls desperately seeking answers, and admirable support comes from Charlotte Gainsbourg and Melissa Leo as their respective but not very well respected partners. However, it is the heavenly Naomi Watts who really brings home the damaged goods. As the one time party girl come wife and mother whose life is irreparably altered Watts has further enhanced her status as a leading lady with great talent; displaying a charisma that the camera is drawn to. She gets the thickest wedge of misfortune by far (pretty much the entire gamut) and as such walks off with the biggest plaudits.

21 Grams is a film deserving of the praise and award nominations that have been heaped upon it. The film represents a remarkable mainstream debut for both its director and screenwriter; who upon delivering such lofty material are shining a light for intelligent, actor-led drama in these days of technological supremacy. The material does feel a little too worthy at times, and the biggest criticism of the film paradoxically remains that the more elaborate facets the style and structure at times hinder the development of the story and the ravenous emotion contained therein. The formal complexity of 21 Grams is to be admired, but in the more frustrating moments it begs the question: would the drama be more affecting if it was played out in a linear way? In some scenes it enhances the content in others it detracts from it. Ultimately, watching 21 Grams is an experience not to be undertaken lightly, but you’ll feel satisfied with the hard work you put in when it’s all over.

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