Shot in documentary-style, 21 Grams is a bleak, unnecessarily convoluted, and surprisingly powerful drama about three individuals linked to both one another and the immediacy of death. (Note: This review contains spoilers.)
Paul (Sean Penn) is a dying man in dire need of a heart transplant; Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is a born-again ex-con who has run over a man and his two daughters as they were crossing the street; and Cristina (Naomi Watts) is the woman whose family Jack has killed. (The film's title refers to the alleged weight of a person's soul. That figure came about via some highly dubious research performed in the early 1900s by Dr. Duncan MacDougall of Haverhill, Massachusetts.)
In order to tell the three disparate but intertwined stories, director Alejandro González Iñárritu opted to use handheld cameras, loads of close-ups, and washed-out colors (top-quality work by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto), whereas screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga built a fully fragmented narrative. As a result, the gritty, claustrophobic 21 Grams offers no sense of a time-space continuum. There's no future and no past, just numerous “presents” that seem to be dangling from a dimension free of time and space constraints.
One could argue that such fragmentation is a cinematic reflection of the characters' equally fragmented selves. In the final analysis, however, Iñárritu and Arriaga's approach is no more than a gimmick – one that works both for and against their film.
One positive result of the filmmakers' choice is that, from the get-go 21 Grams immerses the viewer into its relentless narrative flow. (Credit must also be given to film editor Stephen Mirrione's outstanding work.) Without buoys or lifeguards on duty, one must struggle alone to stay afloat while Iñárritu and Arriaga throw at the viewer myriad clues, including several deceptive ones, about the story's final destination.
One important negative result, however – at least for me – is that the very fragmentation that absorbed my intellect and arose my curiosity also distanced me emotionally from the film, for 21 Grams offers no crescendo leading to an emotional climax. Also, the deceptive clues (e.g., the sequence in which we see Paul shoot Jack) are both unnecessary and irritating. Those are little tricks whose unintended result is to make Iñárritu and Arriaga look like cheats.
In addition to those distractions, Arriaga's screenplay – though generally well-grounded and believable – has other flaws as well. For instance, he does fall prey to the hoary Hollywood cliché that hero and heroine must – simply must – fall in love.
For a movie that relishes in being unconventional, director and screenwriter could have come up with some other type of bond. Perhaps a friendship that arises out of the fact that the heart of Cristina's dead husband is beating inside Paul's body?
Elsewhere in the story, there is some unexplained behavior, such as Paul's ex-wife's insistence on having his baby even though she knows he doesn't love her anymore, and some dime-store philosophizing, as when Paul starts wondering about the meaning of life and death as his soul – all 21 grams of it – is about to leave his body. “How much is gained [with death]?” Paul asks shortly before his last breath. A baby is the answer, for Cristina has gotten pregnant with his child. “How much is lost with corny clichés?” I wondered.
Those qualms notwithstanding, 21 Grams is a must-see motion picture. Why? Well, how much is gained when a film offers superb performances all around? Naomi Watts, mesmerizing in David Lynch's Mulholland Dr., is excellent as a broken woman, overflowing with hatred and bitterness – but little self-pity. Sean Penn gives what may well be the best performance of his career, far surpassing his Oscar-winning turn in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River that same year.
Benicio Del Toro, as much of a lead as the other two actors (though stupidly nominated in the supporting actor category for the Oscars), is perfection: a man who is all at once fearsome and vulnerable, strong and weak, guilty and innocent. Melissa Leo, as Jack's overly protective wife, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Paul's obsessive ex, offer two extra flawless portrayals.
Overall, 21 Grams is an emotionally detached film that offers more clichés than it should. It's also an effort that is mostly redeemed by sterling craftsmanship, solid direction, gripping characters, and a uniformly perfect cast.
21 GRAMS (2003). Dir.: Alejandro González Iñárritu. Cast: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo, Danny Huston, Eddie Marsan, John Rubinstein. Scr.: Guillermo Arriaga.