Benicio Del Toro
Alejandro Gonzlez Inrritu
Every so often, a film will come along that will make you think long and hard about how you felt about it. 21 Grams, the first English-speaking feature from Amores Perros filmmaker Alejandro Gonzlez Inrritu, is such a movie.
In fact, it’s the first motion picture that I can remember myself having a internal argument over: do I praise the film for its raw emotional power, intriguing points of view and great acting, or do I criticize it for wearing me out after two hours of non-stop emotional torment?
Paul (Sean Penn) has less than a month to live, stalled on the waiting list for a heart transplant, and his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is determined to get pregnant with his child before it’s too late. Cristina (Naomi Watts) is a happy mother with a loving husband and two daughters who loses her family in an instant to an unpredictable accident. Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is an ex-con and born-again Christian struggling to support his wife and two children while battling his own guilty conscience.
When these three parties come together through a tragic accident, they make each other behave in impulsive, violent, and destructive ways. The title of the film refers to the amount of weight that a human body loses at the moment death arrives, but also asks a question – how much is gained?
21 Grams is neither a fun nor easygoing time at the movies. Inrritu’s views on sickness, suffering, morality, revenge, and death are uncompromising, and his non-linear approach to telling and intertwining the three stories is demanding on the viewer to say the least. After about an hour of Inrritu’s narrative puzzle, I was ready for one of two things – a bit of linear narrative thrown into the mix or an easy exit from the theatre.
I didn’t get the former and decided against the latter (I reserve walking out only for the truly awful cinematic experiences). I decided instead to continue to wallow in the misery of these difficult characters and see where all of this was going. Despite being worn out by film’s end, I was glad I stuck around. Unlike the other recent mega-downer, House of Sand and Fog, 21 Grams actually comes to a satisfying, thoughtful and justifiable conclusion, one that doesn’t make the viewer want to drive their car into the nearest wall on the way home.
21 Grams is also a great character study, one supported by a remarkable ensemble of performances. Penn, Del Toro and especially Watts, in a performance bound to get her deserved awards attention, delve into these complicated people and bring out their pros and cons, highs and lows without going over the top.
Melissa Leo and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Jack and Paul’s long-suffering wives, also give excellent support with their performances. It’s easy to show a character’s pain, but it takes a lot to let the viewer feel it and do so convincingly. This group of fine actors accomplishes that feat without breaking a sweat.
21 Grams is many things – coarse, jumbled, unpleasant, demanding and often exasperating. If you can handle those factors, you will find that the film is engrossing, powerful and, in the end, rewarding. It’s not for all tastes, but it is a challenging motion picture that you’ll be hard-pressed to shake from memory after you watch it.