The prime function of cinema is to tell a story, to pull the viewer into the tale woven on the screen. Usually, films emulate reality, and the story is told in chronological order, effect following cause, one event after another. With 21 Grams, there is a bending of this rule, Like the films of Quentin Tarantino or the recent thriller Memento, this film plays fast and loose with the flow of time as perceived by the audience. This film also used the time-honored technique of having seemingly separate stories on a collision course with each other. The juxtaposition of these techniques provides a fresh, imaginative approach for the audience. Sean Penn is Paul, a mild math profession with a terminal cardiac disease. In dire need of a transplant, his rather distant wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) pressures him to donate sperm so she can have his child, postmortem if necessary. Next, there is Jack (Benicio Del Toro), an ex-con that found Jesus in prison and now applies stern fundamentalist methods to his role as father and husband. While his wife is grateful for his move away from a life of crime, she has some doubts as to her husband’s newfound religious zeal. Finally, there is Christina (Naomi Watts), a recovering addict, a member of Narcotics Anonymous, wife and mother of two. Initially, there is no connection between these three people, but as often happens in real life, events have a way of pulling people together, like magnets, they are drawn closer into each other’s predicaments. A single tragic event binds the lives of these characters together. The way the movie unfolds reminded me of trying to recall events to another person. Facts and details come along in a free form manner; one memory triggers another and so on. Unlike so many films now this one respects the intelligence of the audience, it gives us credit for being able to piece together the plot lines and keep the various characters and their relationships straight. This may sound trivial, but in too many movies popular today exposition is forced on us, beating us over the head, with the story. This film shows just how much danger there is to the phrase learned in Latin class is; "post hoc ergo propter hoc," after this, because of this. By displaying the events out of sequence, the film drives home the fact that cause and effect often are overpowered by old fashioned happenstance. The lives planned by the characters change in an instant, old relationships fade, others take form. In all, this is not a film to watch casually.
When a director attempts a cinematic technique at all out of the ordinary, he has to have a cast that knows the art of acting. There is not a single fault in the casting of this film. All the leads deliver outstanding performances; each actor here is Oscar caliber. Penn, perhaps best known for his off-screen antics, demonstrates why Hollywood puts up with his wild ways, the man can act. Here his portrayal of Paul is artfully played. There is a sensitivity endowed on the character, an empathy that permits the audience to identify with the man and his plight. Watts has grown over the years since she was in such films as ‘Tank Girl.' In fact, she is in one of my personal favorites, ‘Under the Lighthouse Dancing,' a little Australian independent film. Here in 21 Grams, she shows the true abilities she possesses. She doesn’t play Christina the way many actresses would, the victim of her life. Instead, she shows us a young woman that has made mistakes in her life, realized the harmful effects these bad decisions had and were trying her best to turn her life around with the help of others. This approach to the role is far more human, more believable. Del Toro is the type of actor that many may not appreciate with the first viewing. I felt this way watching his award-winning performance in Traffic. It took a few viewings to see just how well structured his performance was real. He comes across as a man whose emotions run extremely deep; they simmer just below the surface.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu shows with this film that he is not the one hit wonder many critics thought he would be. He is willing to take risks, to turn his back on established techniques and tell a story the way he envisions it. The use of out of sequence chronology is more than just a gimmick; he uses it effectively to force the audience to concentrate on the story, it keeps the viewers on edge and uneasy. He works extremely well with his Cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto to create a visually compelling film. Now the film is not perfect. For one thing, it does come across as extremely heavy. True, the subject matter is prone to such a manner of presentation, but it could have used a few moments to allow the audience to catch their breath a bit and assimilate the expository material. He weaves the three main story lines together in a tapestry; each thread interconnected once you follow them along a bit. Iñárritu has an eye for the visually interesting shot. The use of camera angles and lighting helps support the emotional impact of the film. There are also many religious symbols used in the film, it adds to the overall feel of the movie without becoming too distracting. Although the story is told out of sequence, the pacing is impeccable. This is a director to watch in the future.
Universal has delivered a well-done DVD. The audio is provided in both Dolby 5.1 and DTS. Each soundtrack is well done and provides a moody sound stage. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video is a bit muted at times but that was obviously done for effect, it enhances the mood conveyed to the audience. The disc is a little light on the extras, it does have a featurette, but the lack of commentary is disconcerting. With an experimental approach like this, the words of the director would have given great insight into the creation of this film. This is a film that is better watched on DVD than in the theater. Through repeated viewings, you will pick out details unseen at first. This film is worthy of the awards for which it has been nominated.