Tuesday 29 September 2020

Movie Review: 21 Grams (2003)

A drama about life, death and atonement, 21 Grams deploys an unsettling but ultimately rewarding puzzle structure to enhance a story of three lives colliding.

Multiple plot lines unfold non-linearly from the perspective of three key characters. In simplified form:

  • Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) may die unless he receives a heart transplant. His marriage to Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is strained, but she is anyway eager to get pregnant by artificial insemination before he dies. 
  • Jack Jordan (Benicio del Toro) is a petty criminal and repeat offender trying to go straight. He has embraced religion and now volunteers at the church run by Reverend John (Eddie Marsan). Jack is married to Marianne (Melissa Leo) and they have two young children. 
  • Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) is a recovering drug addict, now happily married to Michael (Danny Huston) and raising two young daughters.
After Jack loses his job as an apprentice golf caddy because of complaints about his tattoos, a horrible car crash disrupts many lives. Paul receives a new heart, but his relationship with Mary appears unsalvageable. He makes a determined effort to get close to Cristina, who reverts back to drug use and now has retribution on her mind.

The opening 45 minutes of 21 Grams dance on the edge between maddening and exhilarating. In a hyperactive editing job, director Alejandro González Iñárritu, working from a script by Guillermo Arriaga, fragments the plot into tiny morsels across time and space, the character connections and event timelines unexplained. The structure presents a concentration and patience challenge.

The dividend is worthwhile. Once the puzzle pieces start to fit, 21 Grams (the title is a non-scientific reference to the supposed weight of the soul) offers a compelling exploration of life's fragility and the often exasperating lines between actions and consequences. Paul bounces from looming death to euphoric reprieve upon receiving his transplant only to encounter another crisis. Cristina has turned her life around and is enjoying domestic bliss when everything is snatched from her. And Jack has made a compact with God to become a better person, and yet is struck by his most massive setback yet. 

The three protagonists merge at the intersection of new starts, old scores and burning passions, their interactions again altering all prior trajectories. With lives hanging in the balance and plenty of reasons for pessimism, children represent hopes and dreams for a better future, and also active resistance against despair. Paul's wife Mary desires his child despite - or maybe because of - his impending death. Cristina's two daughters are her greatest reward for overcoming her past addiction. And Jack's children are a cause to reform and return, more than once. 

Despite sharing the screen time almost equally, Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro all bring a laudable intensity to their roles, with Watts in particular excelling in moments of crisis and uncertainty. Melissa Leo brings working class steeliness to the role of Jack's wife Marianne.

The bravura scene construction and core motifs are marginally stronger than the film's resolution, as the final act opts for a twisty road with a few too many trick turns, Arriaga hammering home the futility of seeking fulfilment through impetuous actions. But while the overall character arcs are mostly grim, 21 Grams allows rays of optimism to shine through. Few individual plans survive, but the convoluted tangle does gestate faint new pathways to a different future.

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