Christina (Naomi Watts) is a loving wife and mother whose life falls apart the day her husband and two young daughters are killed in a hit-and-run. The driver is Jack (Benicio Del Toro), a man who has spent his life in and out of prison, but has since found God and rebuilt his relationship with his own wife and children. Christina’s husband’s heart is transplanted into the body of Paul (Sean Penn), who is dying from heart disease. Paul’s life is saved, but he becomes obsessed with disovering the identity of the donor.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to Amores Perros is an over-wrought but compelling study of faith and loss that overcomes some plot contrivances with powerhouse acting and confident direction. Like his earlier film, Iñárritu weaves his three overlapping story strands with scant regard for strict chronology. They’re really just parts of the same story (like Amores Perros, brought together by a terrible road accident), and Iñárritu builds the film in a way that is at first deeply bewildering, constantly flipping forward and backwards in time. Every time he changes a scene it takes a minute to work out where in the story we are – it’s a good half an hour before everything clicks together. The technique does work and allows for some interesting twists, but I can’t help but wonder if the film would have worked equally well in the right order – unlike, say, Memento, there’s no narrative reason for the shifting timeframe.
Penn, Watts and Del Toro deliver the sort of performances that get Oscar-voters very excited indeed; the sheer intensity of their acting takes the breath away. Watts has the toughest role – the camera stares unforgivingly as Christina collapses, shrieking at the news that her family has been wiped out, and the scene in which Paul reveals that he is carrying her husband’s heart inside him is shockingly fraught. Penn and Del Toro are on more familiar ground, but are perfectly cast. Del Toro’s grizzled looks, bullish frame and tattoos belie the compassionate man that a life of wrongdoing has finally brought out. He is uncomprehending that a God he has given his life to could lead him to kill an innocent man and his children; despite wife Marianne’s plea that it will destroy their household too, Jack gives himself up to the police, telling her his first duty is to God, not his family.
Penn spends half the film close to death, the other half terrified at the way he is drawn to the woman whose own devastating tragedy has saved his life. If Penn makes slightly less impression than his co-stars, it’s only because his role is the less showy – he’s as good here as he’s ever been. The supporting roles are strong too – Charlotte Gainsbourg in particular elicits sympathy as Paul’s wife, desperate to have a child with her husband but finding herself sidelined as Paul recovers and begins a friendship (then relationship) with Christina.
21 Grams deals in Big Themes – death, repentance, religion, revenge – and it’s inevitable that sometimes the drama becomes slightly heavy-handed. There’s little humour, and moments like Del Toro clutching a huge crucifix in church, overcome with remorse for his crime, could have perhaps used a more subtle touch. The film’s biggest problem is the introduction of the revenge plot, as Christina’s sorrow is overtaken for a burning desire for retribution. It’s a false note in a film that otherwise gets impressively inside the heads of its protagonists.
The film really scores on a visual level – Iñárritu reteams with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, the handheld, grainy camerawork creating an unnerving, intimate feel that helps ground some of the film’s more grandiose designs. There are some starkly beautiful shots – a flock of sparrows passing eerily across a dusk sky, Penn gazing blankly at Watts’s naked, sleeping body – and unlike Amores Perros’s harrowing auto-smash, the pivotal car accident is heard but not seen.
The film’s title derives from the weight-loss apparently experienced by the body when it dies. This could perhaps be taken as the very weight of the soul, and the film ends on a moving voice-over monologue from Sean Penn, as he wonders how one measures life itself. For its flaws then, 21 Grams remains a brave, admirably serious film unafraid to ask questions and probe areas most filmmakers (and their producers) might shy away from.
Dynamic Mexican director who made his debut in 2000 with the acclaimed multi-story thriller Amores Perros. Directed one segment of the anthology 11'09''01, and made his Hollywood debut in 2003 with the typically hard-hitting drama 21 Grams. He followed this with the similarly multi-stranded Babel, then the family drama Biutiful, but had the biggest success of his career with the Oscar-winning Birdman, a backstage melodrama.