Review: 21 Grams

Posted by: Mark McLeod  //  December 26, 2003 @ 11:59am

Filed under: Movie Reviews 

2003, the year in film, is quickly coming to a close. It seems like just yesterday I was sitting down in a theatre to see the first theatrical release of the year. The weeks and months that followed exposed me to both the extreme highs and lows of the motion picture industry, as I saw things that shouldn't have been made and films I wondered what took them so long to be made. With only mere weeks before critics release their Best Of and Worst Of lists, there are still a handful of high-profile films that have yet to be released. At this point in the year, it's hard to believe that in the past 11 months, I may not have seen the film that will earn its place at the top of my list. Now having seen 21 Grams, it's safe to say that the battle for top spot has gotten that much more intense.

21 Grams tells the story of three separate individuals whose lives intersect as the result of a tragic event. Paul (Sean Penn) is a math professor whose health is failing due to years of smoking and drinking. He will no doubt die without a heart transplant, but given his situation, the outlook is even more dire. His marriage to Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has seen better days as the two have spent more time apart than together. Reunited by his illness, she refuses to let go of hope and insists that he donate sperm so that in the event of his death she will be able to bear his child. Christine (Naomi Watts) is a married woman with two lovely children and a husband that loves her. She's content with her daily routine until events happen that cause her to spiral out of control back into a life of drugs and booze, the very same problems that plagued her before her marriage. Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is an ex-con who's been in and out of prison for theft and battery charges and who has recently reformed his life through religion and a devotion to Jesus Christ. Hints of his past life still haunt him, as he is surrounded by the negative stereotypes that plague ex-cons as they try to reenter the work force.

To discuss any more of the story and plot of 21 Grams would be to do you, as a viewer, the greatest disservice of all. This is one film that is best to know very little about the story and events going in. In fact, I went into the film with no knowledge about the feature other than its stars and the critical buzz it was receiving around North America.

The story line of the film is very simplistic, but the matter in which it's told is the most creative and involving structure since Memento. In recent reviews, I've often complained about Hollywood's use of non-linear storytelling and for once I'm happy this film wasn't told in a straightforward way. Had the film played straight through from start to finish, it wouldn't change the first-rate acting performances or harm the powerful message that the film contains. It would, however, become simply a good film as opposed to the stunningly powerful piece of cinema it becomes. Instead of playing the story straight through, director Alejandro González Iñárritu has constructed the story in what could best be described as a series of scenes that are thrown together at random. The film moves forward, then back, and then forward again as the viewer gets a glimpse of the lives of these three random people as they interact with one another. All too often, films don't demand the attention of their audience from start to finish, and 21 Grams is a welcome exception to that trend. I was so captivated by the on-screen action that I forgot that I had been up the night before and was bordering on minimal sleep for the entire last week. I didn't even want to blink as I was afraid I'd miss something important.

Sean Penn is arguably one of the most talented actors working in Hollywood. Known for being sort of a bad boy, he's played everything from a mentally-challenged father to a hardened criminal. This year, he's already given a highly-acclaimed performance in Mystic River and now with 21 Grams, he's done the near impossible and contributed two Oscar-calibre performances in the same year. Here he plays Paul, a math professor who must confront his own mortality when he is given the news that he might not live to see the birth of his child. Penn's Paul is a broken man in the beginning, who's given up all hope until a transplant gives him a second lease on life. This changes Paul, who following the procedure begins to take an interest in life and love. Penn contributes a layered and moving performance and is one that shouldn't be forgotten come Oscar time.

Naomi Watts is an actress who broke onto the scene in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, and with that performance and her follow up in The Ring has quickly become one of my favorites. The Aussie-born Watts plays Christina, a reformed party girl who falls back into her old ways following an event that shakes up her family, and gives yet another eye-popping performance that should be considered for Best Actress. In a multi-level role, she is forced to go through an extreme range of human emotions, ranging from total joy to complete unhappiness. Although there are a few moments that seem nearly over-the-top, this film continues to show that she is one of the most capable working actresses in Hollywood. It seems that with every performance I see from her, she gets that much better.

Last but certainly not the least we have Benicio Del Toro as Jack Jordan, a reformed ex-con who is now a devout religious scholar. Del Toro's role is the least showy of the three, but his performance is very much as strong as Watts and Penn. He undergoes a crisis of faith and doesn't come across as a hypocrite. We as an audience believe in him and his beliefs, and feel bad for him when he goes off the path he's so delicately carved for himself. Del Toro, who was excellent in Traffic, plays an important role in this tale and despite all the wrong he's done and the occasional misstep, his Jack Jordan is a smart and dignified man.

Make no mistake about it, 21 Grams is a dark and somber motion picture. It deals with topics such as death, retribution, sorrow, and being given a second chance at life only to have that second chance taken away by fate. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, best known to American audiences from 2000's Amore Perros, has created a tale of the human condition and redemption. Tragedies are unfortunately a sad reality, and when faced with such great sadness, it's important to carry on and live life to the best of your ability. Although the film is filled with much loss and sadness, it's also optimistic in that the viewer has sympathy for these lost souls. No one character is bad at heart " it is only through their actions that we learn about their true intentions and character.

21 Grams is a film unlike any other moviegoers in 2003 have seen. It's a film that will move you and have you thinking long past when you leave the theater. It is without a doubt a stunning and amazing piece of cinema. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has created an intense character study that is aided by three Oscar-calibre performances and a unique and interactive structure that is so involving that it makes viewers pay attention to every single second of film. 21 Grams is a film that's sure to spark discussion amongst those who see it, and it's such a strong piece of filmmaking that it almost requires multiple viewings to take it all in. Without a doubt, 21 Grams is one of the year's best. A must see!

Second Viewing Notes:

It's rare that I have the opportunity to see a film more than once before it opens for the general public. Sometimes it's a time constraint, with so many movies and so little time, and others it's just the fact that the studios don't screen it more than once. After seeing the film initially, I couldn't wait to revisit it and watch it with a greater understanding. As luck would have it, I would get that opportunity mere hours before the film opens for the general public. 21 Grams is one of those films that gets better with every viewing, as I was able to absorb even more details and nuances during my second viewing. Despite the less than ideal viewing conditions, including an audience who was laughing at inappropriate places and who seemed a bit shocked on their way out, the film still brought tears to my eyes with its strong performances, haunting musical score, and puzzle-like structure. If you only see one film this holiday season, please make it 21 Grams. You'll be glad you did.

Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.

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