Three lives joined by a single horrorIn the opening moments of “21 Grams,” we see Sean Penn, wired up in a hospital bed and on the verge of death. We see Naomi Watts in a support group meeting for addicts, talking about how her husband and children have saved her life. We see Benicio Del Toro, unconvincingly telling a bad-news teenager that he needs to turn to Jesus.
We see Penn again ― this time sitting by a rotting motel swimming pool, loading a gun. We see Watts again ― this time in a car, tending to a profusely bleeding Penn and yelling at someone to drive faster. We see Del Toro again, driving the car.
Clearly, time is not proceeding as we are accustomed to seeing it proceed, and clearly “21 Grams” is one of those movies that are bound and determined not to be conventional. From its shattered-mirror chronology to its obscure title (whose meaning is not even alluded to until the final seconds) to its “gritty,” handheld-camera style to its heavy-hitter cast of contemporary Method-actor types, this is a film that wants you to know that it’s up to serious business. And until almost the end, it lives up to its own billing.
Fragmenting a movie’s chronology is very, very far from being a new idea; I won’t even insult you by listing any of the obvious precedents for it. But this story actually calls for it, and for the most part it’s extremely effective.
The central event of “21 Grams” is a fatal car accident that permantly changes (and brings together) the lives of its three main characters, none of whom knew each other beforehand: the driver who causes the accident, the person whose family is killed and the heart transplant recipient whose life is saved because of it. As scene follows seemingly unrelated scene, the story begins to come together; as connections emerge, that horrific central event comes to loom larger and larger, until we come to dread it.
The film is from a Mexican director-writer team, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga, respectively; their best-known work prior to this was 2000’s “Amores Perros,” also, oddly enough, about three lives brought together by a car crash. It’s superb work, for the most part. The settings are absolutely right, from the cluttered, book-stuffed apartment of a dying academic to the clothes worn at a working-poor-Latino birthday party.
The performances, not very surprisingly, are excellent. Del Toro’s character, an ex-con clinging to Christianity like a life raft, is basically sympathetic, but there are some unpleasant notes of self-pity and petulance too. Penn is nuanced and fascinating as usual, particularly in his scenes with the British actress Charlotte Gainsbourg as his wife; it’s one of the more believable depictions I’ve seen of a dead relationship that hasn’t been interred yet. Watts has in some ways the most obvious things to do as the grieving widow, but she does them with enough intensity to shock.
So it’s a pity when this compelling, frank and disquieting movie becomes trite at the end. Suddenly, hearts open, new rays of hope emerge and a narrating voice actually asks us the question, “What is the value of a life?” (I’m paraphrasing, but barely.) Oh, well. It was nice while it lasted.
Drama / English
by David Moll