21 grams (2003)

Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo

Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Rating: 1 2 3 4

In 21 grams, Amores Perros director Alejandro González Iñárritu has created a standard tale of love, hate, religion and revenge then sliced it up, shuffled the scenes like playing cards and stuck them back together where they fell. The use of flashback is hardly new to cinema (Citizen Kane, anyone?) but most films which depend on this mechanism do at least have the decency to start at the end of their story, or at least at a pivotal moment thereof, and then work chronologically onwards, the judicious use of voiceovers and/or hairpieces and stick on wrinkly skin acting as signposts to differentiate between past and present.

Benicio Del Toro as Jack Jordan

Not so 21 grams. In this film we are confronted with a seemingly random series of snapshots from the lives of the three central protagonists, Paul Rivers (Sean Penn), Christina Peck (Naomi Watts) and Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro). Paul is dying in intensive care, bristling with tubes. Christina is swimming. Jack is earnestly lecturing a youth at his local church about the love of God. Paul is sitting by an empty swimming pool, a gun in his hand. Christina is snorting coke in a dingy motel bathroom. Jack is shifting heavy sacks at a work plant in the middle of the desert. Huh?

Our attempts to piece these fragments together are constantly subverted, our expectations confounded, as moments that we've assumed to be scene-setting flashbacks suddenly appear as action yet to occur. But just as we're beginning to get just a teensy bit exasperated, everything starts to fall into place.

Sean Penn as Paul and Naomi Watts as Christina

The plot that eventually emerges from the fractured screenplay centres round the death of Christina's husband, Michael and their two small daughters, who are run down and killed by ex-con turned religious Jesus fanatic Jack Jordan. Rivers is the critical transplant patient who receives Michael's heart, and then becomes obsessed with the donor's wife. Despite her initial horror at the situation, Christina finds herself falling for Paul, and together the pair plan their revenge on Jordan.

But forget the plot, because what the random sequence of events forces us to recognise is that the direct, causal chain of events is irrelevant when set beside the characters and their relationships to each other, to life, to love and to death.

21 grams is the weight the body loses when we die. Not much, is it? About the weight of a bar of chocolate. And yet in this film life is not cheap, and death leaves the cast of characters destroyed by grief and guilt.

Paul stalks Christina until she falls for him

Not that this stops them from slowly trying to kill themselves. All are battling life-destroying addictions: Christina's is cocaine, Rivers' is nicotine and Jordan's is alcohol. In fact the film becomes almost a contest between the two male protagonists as to which can be the more self-destructive: wracked with guilt over the death of Christina's family, Jack abandons his own family and descends into a miserable existence of alcoholism and self-mutilation (not to mention a habit of turning himself in for crimes he could quite easily get away with), whilst Paul unhooks himself from the oxygen tank that keeps him breathing to steal a crafty puff on a cigarette, coughing and wheezing all the while.

Christina discovers she does have something to live for after all

All have something to live for (Jack has a fiercely loyal wife and two cute, big-eyed children, whilst Paul and Christina eventually have each other) yet all three seem intent on throwing their lives away - until the film's violent and brilliantly conceptualised denouement, which turns everything we've witnessed so far upside down. And so a film purportedly about death actually becomes a lesson in learning to live, in clutching at the good things and rejecting the bad, in coming to terms with our own mistakes, in surviving.

The multi-faceted composure allows us to see the story from all sides, emphasising the subjective nature of our concepts of good and bad. To Paul and Christina, Jack is an ex-convict, an alcoholic and drug dealer who ran down a man and two little girls and left them in the street to die. To his wife he is a tortured soul, wrestling with his conscience and trying desperately to do the right thing in the face of tragedy.

Bold, absorbing, challenging and moving, 21 grams is a bravura performance from all involved. Filmed in grainy monochrome colours, the camera work has a ragged, documentary feel to it that makes the action seem more real and immediate. And whilst the plot may seem in danger of verging on melodrama, the tight script and accomplished performances never allow this to happen.

Jack wrestles with his conscience

Benicio Del Toro gives a powerfully visceral and credible performance as the reborn evangelical Christian who feels that God has doomed him to failure and destruction, whilst credit must go also to Melissa Leo, who is very convincing as his long-suffering wife, forced constantly to readjust her expectations of life as her husband veers from convict to Christian to killer.

I've always had problems taking Sean Penn seriously as a 'good actor' (somehow I can never quite get the memory of Shanghai Surprise out of my mind) but I think 21 grams may finally have convinced me. He brings to the selfish and unsympathetic character of Paul a depth and reality that allows us to understand him, even if we don't exactly like him very much.

Naomi Watts' role is the weaker of the three - mostly she just has to cry and scream a lot - but nevertheless she carries it off well, conveying with painful clarity the worn down, hollowed out exhaustion of extreme grief.

Whatever you do, don't avoid this film because you've heard it's depressing. Yes, it is depressing - and soul-destroying, powerful and nerve-racking as well. But it's also very, very good. By the end of it all, I was utterly drained; I felt as if I had run the gamut of emotions with the characters - which I suppose I had, albeit in a very odd order.

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