21 Grams
a film by Alejandro González Iñárritu
written by Guillermo Arriaga


21 Grams is the second feature effort by director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, who created 2000's Amores Perros. While it engages difficult and important human struggles and is peopled with fine performances, it is diminished by a gimmicky narrative structure that confuses and distracts, to no real purpose.

Iñárritu - who began his career in Mexican advertising and music videos - is stylish. He understands the importance of establishing a "tone," - something akin to the "voice" of a novel - in creating a cohesive film. His ability to baste scenes together with this stylistic flair - albeit in this case a "style" that is far from "fashionable" or slick - is what makes the disjointed narrative as compelling as it is (and it is).

The film tells the story of a freak accident and the people who are joined together by that event and its aftermath. Jack (Benicio del Toro), Christina (Naomi Watts) and Paul (Sean Penn) play the three sides of this unique "triangle" with tremendous skill that is a credit to Iñárritu as well, for his ability to evoke such performances and use them as he has. There are also excellent supporting performances, particularly from Melissa Leo, as Jack's wife, and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Paul's estranged wife. The smaller parts are filled with equal attention to detail, and it is this consistent tone of high-quality, realistic performance that gives the film a lot of its presence.

The effects of the accident - both tragic and life-saving - are of course, profound. The title refers to the apparent finding that when a person dies, their body suddenly and inexplicably weighs 21 Grams (the weight of a stack of four nickels, we are told) less than it did when they were alive.

The somewhat heavy-handed voice over at the end of the film (unfortunately recalling a similar but slightly less intrusive lapse in American Beauty) seeks to instruct us as to what we should be thinking. But the title and the unfolding story of the film, brought painfully to life by the leading actors, should be more than enough to get our minds in gear. Iñárritu does a disservice to his film and any audience that would have the sensitivity to appreciate it with this redundant and pretentious literary device.

The subject of this film is difficult - basically it is about the persistence and relentlessness of our impulse to live, and the tensions that creates in the face of our inevitable mortality and that of those we love. But such an abstract subject has to be grounded in and illuminated by actual events - unless one is making My Dinner With Andre.

Creating a narrative that would explore the complexities of the subject was an ambitious undertaking, and one that largely succeeds. But there is one very difficult transition - from Christina's passive and fatalist (but accurate) recognition that nothing can be done to restore the loss that is the source of her pain, to her later transformation into someone who wants revenge.

While her reaction to her confrontation with Jack in the motel room is a perfectly understandable fit of pain and rage, her cold-blooded enlistment of Paul into her plan for revenge is not - nor is his willingness to take on this role.

This must have been a difficult plot point. Some sort to catharsis and resolution seemed necessary, I'm sure (after all, this is not a French film!). So Iñárritu tried to achieve one - but the confrontation that he had to engineer to do so is a weak point in the development of the characters that unfortunately undermines much of the good work.

Which brings us to the question of the narrative structure. Melissa Leo reported that although the shooting script she first read corresponded to the events as they unfolded on the screen, the film was shot in chronological order - even allowing the production to leave specific sets and return to shoot later scenes - rather than the common practice of shooting all scenes on a particular set at one time.

My question was why, given that the premise is pretty solid and the performances outstanding, did it seem necessary to use the shifting time-frame of the narrative as shown on the screen? I wanted to understand what Iñárritu was trying to add to the impact of the film by making it intentionally confusing and hard to follow.

The answer I got from James Schamus of Focus Features, the film's US distributor, was that Iñárritu had told him he was trying to get a "realistic" sense of the way that life actually happens - not in a logical, linear series of steps, but mosaic that shifts between past, present, and future, memory, experience and anticipation, between imagination and reality.

While I thought this was a pretty good intention, I couldn't - and still can't - see that the amount of confusion Iñárritu sows, the amount of jumping around he does, is really necessary to establish this interplay. After a certain point - and especially when it seemed to interrupt the narrative flow right at a critical point - it seemed manipulative and artificial - a device used to distract attention from some of the film's narrative flaws - as mentioned above.

I hope that Iñárritu has not fallen victim to "Tarantino Style." While the disjointed storytelling of Memento, for instance - made perfect sense as a character POV, I found the shifting in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill merely stylistic devices, that don't advance or enhance the telling of the story, but simply seek to distract from the production's weaknesses with an "MTV" kind of self-conscious, non-sequitur hipness.

Iñárritu has assembled an excellent crew. The sets and set deasign are excellent. Most notable is the interior of Jack's house. I have never seen a movie where the closeness, dissaray and confused pre-occupation with things in the lives of working-class Americans is as clearly and accurately reflected as it is in this background. And all the sets look chaotic with the disorganization of actual life, rather than designed. - they look like real houses I have been in.

The camera-work, in collaboration with Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto who has done such diverse and interesting work as 8 Mile and Frida (in addition to Amores Perros) is always effective. The claustrophobic feeling of tightly constrained lives is conveyed by the strange perspectives that make the camera feel as if it is stuffed in a corner somewhere. Hand-held and stedicam shots puncutate the film - always appropriately, with their movement enhancing and emphasizing the emotional tone of the sequence.

The music is introduced carefully and thoughtfully, never eclipsing the action, but always adding a sub-text or counterpoint to it. The range of music is very wide and Iñárritu takes full advantage of his cross-cultural, cross-class characters to use music - among many other things - to explore the similarities and differences between them.

The weakness of the script's resolution and the adoption of what is fast becoming a "narrative convention" that seems at least overdone, and possible completely misplaced notwithstanding, 21 Grams is a powerfully made, well-written, very well-acted film that should earn Oscar consideration for all three of the principals. The film confirms that Iñárritu has considerable talent. Watching it, even with its flaws, is a very moving experience - and it augers well for the future career of this fledgling feature film-maker.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z