21 Grams

Stay still, goddammit! Great acting but next to unwatchable narrative.

Released in 2003, certified UK-18. Reviewed on 09 Mar 2004 by Scott Morris
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Crashing onto Blighty's shores on a wave of Oscar nominations and fawning reviews, you'd be forgiven for expecting 21 Grams to be an incredible film, or at least a good one. Not for the first time, it's left to the only true bastion of truth on the internet, theOneliner.com to call bulls*** on it's candy ass.

After director Alejandro González Iñárritu similarly acclaimed debut with 2000's Amores perros, a film I have yet to understand the fuss over, which placed as much of an emphasis on 'clever' editing than actual story this mess of a film is I suppose the logical conclusion of the line of thinking. Its horrendous, chopped up muddle of a narrative that isn't so much non-linear as nonsensical seems almost to disprove a corollary of Lincoln's assertion that you can't fool all of the critics all of the time. We happen to be that rule proving exception.

It a shame there's so much unnecessary technical distraction, as there's a really good story underneath it. Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is critically ill and waiting for a heart transplant. Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Torro) is an ex-con going straight and putting his faith in Jesus in an almost scary obsessive fashion. Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) is happily married with two kids, but just as a car crash tied plotlines together in Amores perros it ties lives together here. Jack accidentally runs over Cristina's family, killing them. He panics and drives off, only to later hand himself in and face the music much to the chagrin of his wife Marianne (Melissa Leo). This accident turns out to save Paul's life, although he's haunted by thoughts of the circumstances by which his life was saved.

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He hires a P.I. to find out more details, and soon ends up trying to woo Cristina. Apparently he thinks it's fate bringing them together, which is more than a little creepy. Meanwhile, a distraught Cristina refused to press charges on Jack leaving him free to leave jail. Jack has guilt issues, his own family reminding him of the family he destroyed. Refreshingly, rather than use the tragic events that befall him to deny the existence of God he merely gets really pissed off at Him. He falls apart, needing punishment for his actions and seemingly unable to get it anywhere. His wishes may be granted when Cristina decides that maybe she does want justice after all and decides to use Paul as her instrument of vengeance.

It's a tale chock full of angst, drama and intrigue. It's a powerful tale. It's almost a Greek tragedy, minus the whole Gods-solving-everything at the end. The Oscar noms for Del Torro, Penn and Watts are hugely well deserved. Showing real pain and believable anguish, the three leads (it seems unfair to class Del Torro as Supporting, no matter what the Academy says) give performances that aren't leagues away from career bests. Unreservedly, it is worth watching this film for their at times astonishing turns. At times the power of their words shows that the story habitual Iñárritu collaborator Guillermo Arriaga penned could be one of the movies of the year.

Exactly why Iñárritu decided to obscure this amongst one of the most deliberately and distractingly fractured editing crimes ever perpetrated on an audience is a mystery. For some inexplicable reason the first half an hour to an hour is chopped up. reordered, rejigged and reduced to a baffling patchwork of barely connected scenes. The theme of the film appears to be that life goes on in the wake of tragedy, but apparently not in chronological order.

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Briefly I though it was because the story was told from the perspective of a near-death Paul Rivers, but that doesn't fly because then the film wouldn't have been able to show any of Jack Jordan's home life. So, it's just an arbitrary decision by the director to stir up some interest. Nothing inherently wrong with that, although not terrifically innovative any more. If you argue that Welles' Citizen Kane was the first popular example of the technique then it hasn't been innovative since 1941. It's the most extreme proponent of this non-linear narrative doohickey since Christopher Nolan's superb Memento, but while the short-term memory loss of that film's lead proved to be an exceptional hook into caring about both him, his condition and his story the seemingly random jumping around of 21 Grams does nothing more than irritate.

Why not having much of a clue about what's going on for the first thirty minutes isn't exactly a sign of a good film, no matter how many people try to tell you otherwise. There's no clothes on this particular Emperor, folks. Probably more galling is the fact that it's a really good story. Just a story obfusticated by layers of unnecessary chrome, as though Iñárritu just didn't have the confidence to shoot it straight up and have the film judged on the merits of the story, not some imagined technical excellence.

It'll come as no surprise that the art-house crowd will fawn over this, after all it's experimental and shot on grainy film to keep that all important Indy creed despite the fact that twenty million dollars were thrown at it. They might at least have bought some decent film stock. While the technical aspects of any film are an inextricable part of it's make up in any case where it's overwhelming the story it's a problem. Whether it's a reliance on special effects that spoils things like Independence Day or The Matrix Reloaded or esoteric narrative devices, it's always to the detriment of the story and the characters, making it incrementally harder to give a toss about any of them each time another jarring cut occurs. It angers us more here than if it were used in say, Bad Boys 2 because there the story sucked anyway. In a film such as 21 Grams with terrific actors, great performances and a compelling and affecting tale once it finally reassembles itself it's a tragedy, because it simply isn't needed and adds nothing to the experience.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 2/5 TippyMarks.

Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast list:
Sean Penn (Paul Rivers)
Naomi Watts (Cristina Peck)
Benicio Del Toro (Jack Jordan)
Charlotte Gainsbourg (Mary Rivers)
Melissa Leo (Marianne Jordan)
Clea DuVall (Claudia)
Danny Huston (Michael)
Carly Nahon (Cathy)
Claire Pakis (Laura)
Eddie Marsan (Reverend John)