Cinema Signal:

Stories of the Heart:
Reflections on the
Heart Transplant Journey

. "21 Grams"

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 story.

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 disappointment.

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 conversion.

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!

Click for full list of movie reviews

                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

The Soundtrack album

Release order
Alphabetical order
To Jbmovies
(sample frames from movies photographed
by Jules Brenner)


Naomi Watts as Christina
A loss so great it can't be measured
An award worthy performance

Help us to continue
bringing you these reviews...
visit our sponsors (just a click will do it)