Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's new American triptych 21 Grams
folds into itself far more then the distinctly disparate parts of his terrific 2000 debut film Amores Perros. The film's narrative exists somewhere between fractured and interwoven, following three characters-Paul (Sean Penn), Jack (Benicio Del Toro), and Christina (Naomi Watts)-as they confront tragedy through a slippery timeline. Specifically, Paul is dying and requires a heart transplant that is supplied when Christina's husband is accidentally run over by Jack. These three lives intersect at this coincidence and Paul comes away from the experience deeply needing to get in contact with his anonymous donor's family. The film downplays its main contrivance by throwing at the viewer scenes that rotate and revolve around each other with no central axis. Before the transplant Paul is deathly ill and being cared for by his girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Jack is living with his family and finding solace in fervent Christianity, and Christina with her husband and children. After the transplant Paul tries to find the donor's family, Christina's mourning fluxuates between sorrow and vengeful hysterics, and Jack questions his faith and his role with his children.
Though Inarritu keeps the same handheld grainy aesthetic of his previous feature, he and writer Guillermo Arriage reject Amores Perros aggressively tactile feel for the importance of the world its characters inhabit and here focus on their spiritual questioning. The characters all have darker pasts hinted at-Paul's womanizing, Christina's drug abuse, and Jack's alcoholism and criminality-and 21 Grams
' circular narrative provides a seemingly unending tragedy that regresses each of them into their past. In this way they each become obsessed with a solution to the mystery of the accidental deaths. Paul becomes self-deterministic, trying to find a way to thank Christina and eventually falling for her. Jack rejects his adamant Christianity that led him to believe his act of killing was fated, and turns away from his family. Christina regressed into passivity, escaping into alcohol, drugs, and thoughts of revenge.
The film's title comes from the idea that a body loses 21 grams of weight when it dies, and at its core the film explores the cyclic nature of death and life. Paul is a walking example, as he is reborn when Christina's husband's death gave Paul a way to live. 21 Grams
is fatalistic in its philosophy, for even as Christina seeks out to kill Jack and Paul's body begins to reject his heart there are life-affirming equivalencies that match up. It seems no matter what one does, whether they are passive or active, believing or not, each person is a gear in a machine that takes its 21 grams as often as it gives it.
If this philosophy seems dehumanizing, the film's characters and narrative structures attempt to fight this fact. 21 Grams
' unique structure throws into narrative-less space scenes of conflict that often feel obliquely tied to a distinct story. This eliminates any arc or growth for 21 Grams
' characters, and one merely has to recognize which of three time periods the film is operating in to know whether, for example, Jack is faithful, questioning his faith, or faithless. But what this narrative strategy attempts to do, however, is give the audience isolated moments of intense humanity and shared tragedy. And aside from an overwrought moment or two on the part of Naoimi Watts, all four actors turn in gracefully subtle and passively implosive performances. Del Toro has grayed his hair, gained weight, gone scruffy, withdrawn inward and completely loses himself in his character. Though not one of the film's three principles, Mary is the most interesting character and casting the unusual, pretty, British-accented Gainsbourg is one of the film's humanizing coups. These all attempts to balance out the film's mechanical fatalism , but Inarritu and Arriage's technique overpowers everything in the film like gangbusters, and 21 Grams
ends up feeling like a rigged game setup to play out and affirm the same idea through different characters. The cycle is brutal and inescapable, and 21 Grams
struggles and fails to show that anything in between life and death is really worth anything at all.