21 Grams

By Max Leonard

Amores Perros, the debut feature by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, brought him international arthouse acclaim and surfed the crest of a wave of interest in the new Mexican and South American cinema. After seemingly months of hype and interviews his follow up, 21 Grams, will bring his distinctive style and world view to an even wider audience. This is his first English language feature and, with the draw of heavyweight hollywood players Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro, and the ascendant star of Naomi Watts, it will surely show him to be one of the most accessible serious filmmakers today.

Paul (Sean Penn) is a maths professor in need of a heart transplant and is the film's pivotal player. After receiving a new heart in the nick of time he becomes obsessed over the fate of the donor and tracks down the grieving Christina (Watts). As the bond grows between them, they decide to track down Michael (Benicio Del Toro), the ex-con whose born-again Christian faith leads him to turn himself in after he kills Cristina's husband and children in a hit-and-run incident.

Much has been made of the narrative structure, a fragmented, non-linear retelling of the above events and their consequences. Certainly it pushes the technique further than most, and it is the film's major coup-de-grâce, involving the viewer in its characters' tragedy while eschewing filmic conventions of stitching together of time and space. Some of the editing is truly breathtaking; scenes cut associatively rather than linearly, along emotional or visual lines, the camera following the flow of characters' movements, or even objects, backwards and forwards in the narrative from one glass to a different one, from one set of cutlery to another. As such it betrays an intelligence shaping the film that is more concentrated on the most minute details than the major action – mirroring Del Toro's sentiment expressed twice in the film to radically different effect: 'God even knows when a single hair moves on your head'. The director, as god, here, moves in mysterious ways and in doings so reveals an allegiance to a higher order, though this detachment from the heartbreak on display sometimes runs the risk of emotionally alienating the spectator.

Like Amores Perros the film spins around the vortex of a fatal event, a car crash, that traumatically binds all the main protagonists together. But whereas in Amores Perros, the crash was visceral and literally bone-shattering, in 21 Grams it is never shown to the spectator, circled in on from different angles yet remaining in the off-screen space of the unrepresentable tragedy, more black hole than blinding light. Initially disorientating, the film never becomes incoherent, and with even a rudimentary idea of the plot (as recounted in all the publicity and numerous reviews, the present included), there are no problems with comprehension; structurally reminiscent of other films such as Michael Haneke's Code Inconnu and, less precisely, Pulp Fiction, it is perhaps an example of how mainstream cinema can now incorporate sophisticated formal and stylistic experimentation.

The director draws excellent performances from all three leads, as well as from a supporting cast that includes Charlotte Gainsbourg and Melissa Leo, but it is Del Toro who is the most devastating, as the tortured believer who cannot accept his position in a drama that grapples existentially with faith, destiny and love. The film lacks the emotional rhythm and range of Amores Perros, and sustains an intensity of feeling that at times seems overwrought and heavy-handed, but in the closing scenes, with Sean Penn's final act, it acquires a poignancy and compassion that is ultimately redemptive and, despite its gloomy outlook, displays an optimism about humanity and the power of love that was lacking in its predecessor.

Shot in Iñárritu's trademark bleached and grainy style (with his regulars, director of photography Rodrigo Prieto and production designer Brigitte Broch), and with an atmospheric soundtrack, 21 Grams resembles nothing else you will see at the cinema this year, either aesthetically or in terms of raw impact.
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