After turning heads with his striking debut “Amores Perros,” Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu cements his reputation as a boldly talented filmmaker with his first English-language project, “21 Grams.” Ambitiously structured in non-chronological fragments that form a fascinating puzzle, this raw drama about grief, guilt and redemption becomes ultimately overextended and overwrought in its final stretch. But while the grittily textured film’s cold veneer and grim nature will confine the commercial field for Focus Features, critical attention for its bravura craftsmanship and potent performances should attract discriminating audiences.
Despite the shift from Mexico City to middle America and the move to a bigger budget, Inarritu’s second feature is entirely coherent with his first, suggesting a fully formed, confident personality with an inventive approach to narrative.
In “Amores Perros,” three stories unfolded consecutively with occasional intersections; in “21 Grams,” the stories of three principal characters are simultaneously explored, shifting between past and present. This forces the audience to work at piecing together the elements and discovering only gradually the unexpected ways in which they interlock.
As a means of underscoring screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s theme of how seemingly distant fates can be inextricably intertwined, the structure is no less compelling or audacious than that of Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” or Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible.”
Like “Amores Perros,” an accident again is the central element, gravely impacting the lives of three people. They are Paul (Sean Penn), a college math professor with a terminal heart condition; Cristina (Naomi Watts), who has settled into a stable marriage and family life after a rocky past of substance abuse; and Jack (Benicio Del Toro), a reformed alcoholic and ex-con-turned-Jesus freak, living with his supportive but skeptical wife Marianne (Melissa Leo) and their two kids.
The stability of Paul’s marriage to his brittle British wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is undermined by unreconciled past transgressions and his life-or-death uncertainty as he waits for a heart transplant. Mary almost bullies him into agreeing to her plan to undergo surgery and artificial insemination in order to have his child, which likely will be born after Paul’s death.
When a car accident claims the lives of Cristina’s husband (Danny Huston) and daughters, the three principal characters become connected in ways that represent a threat to themselves and each other.
Based both on the director’s previous film and on Arriaga’s script, it’s easy to see what drew these actors to work with Inarritu, who takes his characters to far darker places than most filmmakers. A handful of key scenes provide major opportunities for the actors to explore different degrees of emotional devastation.
But Inarritu is a more visceral than emotional filmmaker. Aside from occasional instances, the drama is more troubling than moving, something for viewers to be drained and unsettled by, rather than eliciting any consistent depth of feeling for the characters, all of whom behave harshly as often as tenderly. The film at times recalls the emotional timbre of Lars von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” and in parts is almost as unrelentingly grueling as Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.”
While Inarritu and Arriaga slot the puzzle together with precision and clarity, the decision to maintain the fragmented structure through to the end instead of switching to a more linear track for the final act may have contributed to keeping emotional involvement at a finite level and slightly underselling the conclusion’s note of hope. A sense of overkill in the climactic stretch also burdens the film, notably in Penn’s overly elaborated closing voiceover dialogue about the 21 grams in body weight lost during death.
But despite a certain absence of restraint, Inarritu’s film unfailingly commands admiration, not least of all for his skill with the actors. Following his darkly nuanced work in “Mystic River,” Penn again shows he’s among the most resourceful and intuitive thesps of his generation with a thoughtful, exposed turn, even if the profession allocated his character in the script seems somehow at odds with his course of action.
Looking careworn and heavy-set, Del Toro sheds his cool swagger and portrays a man struggling to reverse the direction of his past and clutching at religion as an easy avenue.
Arguably for the first time since “Mulholland Drive,” Watts gets a chance to really demonstrate her range in a pained, angry performance that represents the wrenching center of the movie. And “Homicide: Life on the Street” star Leo appears well positioned for more film work, bringing subtle shadings to perhaps the most emotionally accessible role.
Aside from editor Stephen Mirrione (“Traffic”), whose contribution is key to making the complex structure work, Inarritu has retained many of his chief collaborators from “Amores Perros.” Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto creates an arresting dirty-realism look, using nervous handheld camera movements, varying the film stock for grainier visuals in the more unhinged scenes, and bleaching out much of the color.
Even the seemingly comfortable suburban family neighborhoods are given an unhealthy pallor, while other location choices favor the seedy, shabby side of Memphis, which goes unidentified in the film. Composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s varied score is subtly used, often incorporating a subdued Latin flavor.