For all the acting, writing, and directing superpower behind it, 21 Grams will be forever distinguished by its nonlinear design. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (who shares story credit with Guillermo Arriaga) takes the scenes of his searing psychological drama and shuffles them like a deck of cards. Alas, this gamble only yields a partial payoff: Those who can ride out the initial waves of incoherence might enjoy the mystery that comes with such a jumbled structure. Otherwise, Grams can never quite escape the novelty of such a bravura approach. We’ll double back to this later…
First, let me try and straighten this cinematic slinky as much as possible, and I must do so with a note of caution: Much of the power in Iñárritu’s approach comes from the unpredictability of such an abstract narrative. Character revelations and plot twists seem to whomp us over the head at random. I don’t want to rob you of those discoveries, so I’ll keep my descriptions more frugal than usual.
The plot centers on three disparate souls: Paul (Sean Penn) is a mathematics professor with a failing heart. Christina (Naomi Watts) is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, now happily married with two daughters. Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is a born-again Christian with a deeply troubled past.
These lives will violently collide in the wake of an instant tragedy: Christina’s husband and children are killed in a hit-and-run accident. Again, I won’t spoil anything more, except to say this trauma creates an emotional and spiritual supernova that threatens to obliterate everyone caught within its radius.
Iñárritu bounces all around this unseen event, sometimes to jarring effect. The result is a deep meditation on a buffet of meaty philosophical subjects. In any given scene, we might experience: Devastating grief, survivor’s guilt, the pull of addiction, the humiliation of relapse, and the surprising, ungainly form salvation can sometimes take.
This weighty material is given lift by all-world performances. All the leads are Oscar-level talent, and they don’t disappoint: Del Toro heads the pack, as a decent man broken by life and mired in a moral and spiritual crisis. Watts delivers a gut-wrenching turn, showing a woman annihilated by trauma, and hollowed by the stillness that follows it. Finally, Penn captures the ambiguity of man who feels shame for dying, followed by shame for living.
Iñárritu further scores by creating an intimate—even claustrophobic—environment. His handheld cameras stay tight on the actors, making us uncomfortable witnesses to their outbursts of rage and despair. When the film pulls back for a shot of desert mountains or cityscape, it feels startling and awkward, as if our eyes have to adjust to the sudden expanse.
As mentioned before, no discussion of this film can avoid the gimmick behind its structure. (And it is a gimmick.) 21 Grams is as well-acted as any film ever made. The script brims with truth and poignancy. With such uncommon quality, with such emotional power, I’m not sure this movie benefits from its nonlinear assembly. Yes, there is an air of suspense to the story’s first half, but the choppy storytelling also robs the material of some of its dramatic flow.
And don’t get it twisted: I respect Iñárritu’s ballsy approach. That couldn’t have been easy to take a perfectly good story and scramble it to hell. (It should be noted the film’s first half is more jumbled than the second, which eases into a more conventional groove. This proves there is method to Iñárritu’s editing madness.) Reportedly, Grams was filmed in sequence, and I’d love to see that cut for comparison.
As it stands, I’ll go ahead and call Iñárritu’s ambitious approach a wash. Some viewers will go along with its creative hubris more than others. I’m relieved this didn’t become an actual filmmaking trend: My simplemindedness needs a story that flows from left to right. The audaciousness of 21 Grams might not always work, but it still shines on the strength of its story and the skill of its performers.
124 min. R. Tubi.