21 Grams

Since Citizen Kane film makers have felt free to shatter linear story-telling and arrange their films in the way that they believe will offer the greatest impact. Granted, most films are not non-linear; but many directors and screenwriters directors  have used to this exciting method. Films like Pulp Fiction, Following, Memento, Reservoir Dogs, and The English Patient, break the narrative into pieces and dole it out like a mystery.

21 Grams uses this method to great effect. Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking, Sweet and Lowdown, Hurly Burly) stars as a man with a bad heart. He has been placed on the transplant list, but does not expect to survive for long. He receives a heart when a man and his two daughters are run down by a car driven by Benicio Del Toro (The Usual Suspects, Way of the Gun, Traffic). Del Toro is an ex-con who has found religion. Despite his newly found faith, Del Toro has trouble controlling himself. He is obsessive in his belief, just as he was once obsessive in his criminal activity. Naomi Watts (The Ring) plays the widow of the heart donor. Penn’s character seeks her out, and they tumble into a morbid affair, that has more to do with a dead man, than with either of them.

 21 Grams is part revenge story, part romance, and all human drama. It is about loss, pain, the hope of redemption, and the futility of life. The director, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, is a master of the form. His earlier film, Amores Perros (which also used a non-linear structure) was difficult, challenging and beautiful. 21 Grams is a worthy successor to that film. The way in which information is doled out slowly in disjointed bits adds to the impact of the film. One is reminded of the cutup method of story-telling (pioneered by William S. Burroughs and Byron Gysin), or of the random ordering of chapters in Naked Lunch (also by Burroughs). Sean Penn delivers one of his three best performances (the other two, by the way, were in  Mystic River, and the now classic At Close Range). Penn may be the finest actor of his generation, although in recent years he has strayed into fields where he has less talent , such as writing. He has a depth, and a range that is nearly unrivalled. It is no stretch to list him along such luminaries as Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, and Robert DeNiro. Benicio Del Toro, seems to have appeared from out of nowhere. Ten years prior to this film no one had heard of him. Now he stands as one of the most versatile actors working. He is one of those rare performers that seems to only make good choices, and to not be hampered by ego. He was rightly nominated for an Oscar for his work in this film. Although I agreed with the Academy that Tim Robbins deserved the award that year, I am glad that Del Toro won an Oscar for Traffic, which is a wonderful film that no one seems to talk about anymore.

I had not paid much attention to Naomi Watts before this film. I now feel badly for that. Clearly she is a talented and capable actor. She reaches a depth of emotion that is striking, but without veering into the realm of melodrama. It is nearly impossible to strike the proper balance in this territory, but she does. The Oscar nomination she got for this film would not be the last one she received.

The film is beautifully photographed. The opening scene is one of the most marvelous images I have seen in years. This is a lovely, and amazing film. Reading back over what I have written I see that I have employed a massive number of superlatives in this essay. Normally I would edit some of them out. However, in this case they all seem absolutely necessary. 21 Grams is a remarkable film from a director that was just getting started. Since this film, Iñárritu has given us the wonderous Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, and The Revenant.