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USA 2003
Directed by
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
124 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

21 Grams

Bringing people together via an automobile accident is not new to director Iñárritu who used a similar idea in his first film Amores Perros (2000) which, like this film, was scripted by Guillermo Arriaga.

Once again the performances are powerful, with the three leads all having emotionally-devastating situations to deal with, but here the mechanics of interconnected lives are ratcheted up with grueling intensity whilst the film’s grainy de-saturated look and the achronological fractured approach to the narrative work conspire together in a near-merciless a portrait of spiritual alienation. Not something to everyone’s taste but brilliantly done with a special credit going to editor Stephen Mirrione whose deft cutting up of the narrative works which might otherwise have felt self indulgent and exploitative for only in the film’s latter stage in which it approaches a more conventionally redemptive resolution does 21 Grams waver from its tragic point of view.

The film’s title refers to the supposed (but entirely apocryphally so) weight that everyone loses immediately after dying. Naomi Watts plays Cristina, a recovering drug addict who has lost her husband and two young daughters in an car accident,  Academic Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) awaits a heart transplant while his wife, Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), hopes to conceive his child through artificial insemination. Reformed ex-con Jack Jordan (Benicio del Toro) has become a born-again Christian and works with disaffected youth while struggling to provide for his family

Alcoholism, drug addiction, marital breakdown, guilt, death and despair are the order of the day and Watts and Penn go at these things with characteristic intensity. Del Toro, although his character is less articulate is equally intense and together with the support of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Melissa Leo (replacing British actress Katrin Cartlidge who died before the production began) as hapless wives, the three take us on a harrowing journey.

Arriaga's script is rewardingly dense with detail although one may question the decision to make Penn's character a mathematics professor. Not only bar a brief Pythagorean sentiment expressed to Cristina (the film’s only slight mis-step into the thematically expositional) does this have no apparent resonance in Paul's worldview, it is irrelevant to the story  In addition Penn hardly suits the professorial type, a type which in particular one would not expect to have such remarkably good underworld connections.

At times moving more often than not grueling 21 Grams is likely to leave you winded but in a good way.




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