We hereby grant director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores Perros") the
Flashback Award for 2003! He brings a new level of obscurity and obfuscation
to story telling through a frenetic display of time chopping. In his tale of
a tragic accident, heart transplantation and grief, he does more flips
than they do at the pancake house. Rarely has a director so indulged himself
in an effort to attract attention. His workout on the editing table would
make a personal trainer envious.
More's the pity since he not only pulled together such an able cast, but has
probably elicited at least one award caliber performance, possibly more.
In dealing with a tragic multiple accident, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga,
for some reason, dwells on the amount of body weight that's lost at the
moment of death for his title and dialogue concerns. It's the first tipoff
that we're in for an attempt at philosophical depth at the expense of
straight storytelling. But that's not to say that the story that focuses so
well on the consequences of loss is anything other than gripping. It's just
that it took around 20 minutes for me to begin to get a handle on that
Amidst the confusion of the intercut time lines, I kept my interest level up
with the thought that it likely will make sense...eventually. It does and it
did, but it's a rough, rutty road. Above any film I can think of (even the
backwardly developed "irreversible", reading reviews of it before seeing
it is highly recommended. Here's what I pieced together:
Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a mathematics teacher on the list for a heart
transplant. When he gets one, he can't leave well enough alone, so goes
looking for the family of the person whose heart he received.
Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) is an ex-con gone straight as a born-again
christian who hit the family in the car and ran away. Despite his wife
Marianne's lack of sympathy for his religious need to atone, pleads that he
think instead of his family and forget the incident. But, he is intent on
turning himself in so that he can deal with the guilt through proper
punishment and wipe away the images that haunt his mind and strain his faith.
Paul's quest for the donor of his heart leads to Christina Peck (Naomi
Watts), the woman who lost her family, husband and two children in the
accident. As a result, she's constructed a wall of isolation in which to
grieve but, despite that, by being sensitive and steady, Paul manages to gain
her trust, then her love. The relationship is sore tested when he finally
reveals that her husband's heart beats in his chest. At this revelation, her
trust for him falls apart and she goes into a rage of accusation and
After a light and pleasant outing in "Le Divorce", a part that Watts seems to have borrowed for
the sake of her bank balance, she takes on a role here that she completely
owns. This is a performance that pays off on the promise she showed in "Mulholland Drive" in 2001. It
should draw considerable attention from the academy for nomination
consideration. She plays it so convincingly you'd think she had a DNA
But hers is not the only fine performance. Benicio Del Toro hasn't taken so
suitable and emotionally explorable a role since "Traffic", the part that gave him
marquee value. Melissa Leo, who plays his wife Marianne, is a find and
worthy of far greater praise than she's likely to receive amidst all the star
flash surrounding her. She is exemplary at every turn of events, scoring a
fully dimensional supporting roll.
Finally, but certainly not out in the dust, is Sean Penn who turns in his
second muscular protrayal of the year, following "Mystic River." His work
leaves nothing to be desired as he faces the twists of love and the
consequences of his destiny.
The parts are well written and individual scenes are well directed as the
intersections of the affected parties play out with subtle, almost
underplayed emotional power. The writing expertise and discipline shows in
the muted role of violence, avoiding the boxoffice cliche, going for a
framework of realism. The naturalistic look of the film by cinematographer
Rodrigo Prieto is in full support of that, providing rich dimension instead
of flashy glamourization.
Considering all the creative professionalism behind a solid story, it's almost
tragic to have so much meaning and impact thrown away by the non-linear
approach. This is a film that begs for and deserves a recut. That is, if
the editor is less influenced by the geniuses who came up with this dizzying
kaleidoscope of an editing device. It comes off as a pretension to
self-importance. Other than that, "21 Grams" is worth its weight!
~~ Jules Brenner