A few years ago, "Amores Perros" exploded onto the big screen, devouring us with three intermingled stories about life,
death, and dogs. What tied all three stories together in "Amores Perros" was a life altering car accident. And for
director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, making his American debut, that is the same plot device that connects the three
lives in "21 Grams." But rather than tell the story in chronological order, Inarritu takes us forward and back through
time, allowing us to gain insights into the characters before and after they are hit with disaster. With phenomenal
performances and unconventional storytelling, "21 Grams" leaves an impression: a riveting tale of hope, forgiveness,
Paul Rivers is a college math professor, frenetically awaiting a heart transplant. His health is rapidly deteriorating,
causing significant strain on his relationship with his wife, Mary. Further complicating their relationship is the hope
that the two will one day have children together. In Christina Peck's world, nothing could be brighter in suburbia. A
former drug addict, Christina has turned her life around. She is a happily married mother with two adorable girls, a
loving husband, and a supportive older sister. And then there's Jack Jordan, an ex-con who recently converted to
Christianity. Despite a loving wife, Marianne, and two children, Jack's faith is periodically tested as he struggles
to put food on the table for his family.
All three of these lives are tragically impacted following a horrendous car accident. Paul receives a new heart as a
result, but begins questioning his own mortality; Christina suffers a drug relapse, uncertain about her future; and Jack
agonizes between his commitment to God and his duty and responsibility to his family. Each individual has to re-assess
the meaning of their life, each has a need to reach out and communicate to someone, and each needs time to sort through
things on their own. But all three realize that only by affirming their connection to one another, can they return to
some state of normalcy. Or, in the very least, can they be at peace.
When "Amores Perros" hit the screen in 2000, the world became privy to the aggressive, gut wrenching style of
filmmaker, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. In fact, Inarritu's "Perros" along with Alfonso Cuaron's "Y Tu Mama
Tambien" began the resurgence of Mexican cinema almost single handedly. Now, three years later, Inarritu is
back at it again and blowing us away with another, tragic induced drama. "21 Grams" follows in the same
footsteps as "Amores Perros," deconstructing three major storylines after a single car accident. But unlike
"Amores Perros," the storylines are not segregated and broken out chronologically. Here, Inarritu jumbles the
sequence of events and tells the story out of order.
This presentation is a bit confusing at first as we are inundated with bits and pieces, scenes from the past, present, and
future, and characters we are just getting to know. But slowly, the story takes hold and we are immersed in a complex web
of personal tragedies. Although I am always intrigued by unique filmmaking techniques, this method of storytelling wears
off about midway through the movie and becomes a little annoying towards the end, particularly after we have drawn most
of our own conclusions. Furthermore, I am fully convinced that the picture would have been better told had it unfolded
chronologically. But that's my only grievance.
What makes this picture stand out most is the sensational acting ensemble of Penn, Del Toro, and Watts. These
actors are so good that each scene becomes dominated by their mere presence. We suffer with them, feeling
remorse, pain, and indecision. Naomi Watts, hot off the trail of the highly successful psychological
thriller, "The Ring," turns in her finest performance since "Mulholland Drive." She's a powder keg
overflowing with an unimaginable set of emotions. And that keg is particularly volatile when approached by
Sean Penn's Paul Rivers. Penn is one of the most natural performers around and this role allows him to gently
tap into his inner self and evoke an inquisitive, sensitive side as his character gains a new lease on life.
But for me, the most brilliant, understated performance of the film belongs to Benecio Del Toro. Del Toro's
character carries guilt on his shoulders like the Greek Titan Atlas carries the weight of the world on his
shoulders. The burden is tremendous and Del Toro's torment is agonizing and horrifying. Gritty, intense, and
distinguishable, Del Toro's characterization will haunt you as much as it seeks your pity.
Rodrigo Prieto captures the essence of the story on a hand held camera, giving the film an edgy resolve that only
enhances and authenticates the performances. Prieto plays with us, showing us symbolic imagery of a hummingbird
flapping its wings, a flock of birds exiting a scene, or a crucifix dangling from a rear view mirror. This bit of
foreshadowing or hindsight adds texture and makes the story more significant because of the way the story unfolds,
going backwards and forwards in time. And Prieto and Inarritu even go about shooting the scenes unconventionally,
oftentimes with powerful results. Such is the scene involving Naomi Watts and Clea DuVall. Upon receiving the
worst news ever, Naomi's Christina is consoled by her father. It is overwhelmingly sad and we can hear it. But
rather than focus on Christina, the camera hones in on Christina's sister, Claudia (DuVall). While we listen to
Christina agonize horribly with grief, we see Claudia fight back tears until finally she gives in. This is
incredible direction, the ability to make a powerful scene even more so by allowing us to visualize Christina's
grief through the eyes of Claudia.
With an outstanding cast, a contemplative story, and strong direction, "21 Grams" absorbs you and dissects its
tale of life, death, and re-birth with inventive force. Although it falters a little toward the end because
of random storytelling, it succeeds because it has a story worth telling. "They say we all lose 21 grams at
the exact moment of our death...everyone." And while that may be true, this is one film that also acknowledges
the weight we gain after losing someone close to us. It's a weight that we carry the rest of our lives.