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21 Grams
cast: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Danny Huston

director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
125 minutes (15) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
MGM DVD Region 2 retail
Also available on video

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Roger Keen
Twenty-one grams is the weight everyone loses at death - "...the weight of a stack of five nickels, the weight of a hummingbird," the commentary tells us at the film's conclusion, and 21 Grams, one of the most critically-acclaimed films of 2003, presents itself bristling with the credentials of a hard-hitting, gritty drama about damaged lives and the loss and pain inflicted by death. Like the director's previous piece Amores Perros, the story centres on a road accident and how it affects three individuals. Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) loses her husband and two daughters, and tailspins into a druggy twilight existence. Paul Rivers (Sean Penn), a cardiac patient with weeks to live, benefits as the recipient of a donor heart. And Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro), the perpetrator of the accident, an ex-con who's got religion, becomes consumed by guilt and the need to punish himself.

The characters are nicely established in some well-drawn scenes. Rivers' shaky marriage to Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is dependent on his infirmity, and when he's well again it can't function. Jordan takes his Christianity far too literally, ramming it down the throats of his children, and when under extreme stress, clinging to it with the hopelessness of a drowning man. Cristina is so traumatised by her loss that, despite bereavement therapy, all she can do is blank out the pain and turn herself into a simmering volcano. The narrative positions these three lives on collision courses with one another, and it explores how in seeking redemption they can seemingly only inflict further damage.

The structure is downright confusing - deliberately so, one assumes. Scenes from different time periods are put adjacent to one another like mismatching jigsaw puzzle pieces, and the effect is initially one of incoherence rather than technique mirroring the message. This editing trickery creates another layer of mystery and suspense over and above that of the story itself, and ultimately when all the puzzle pieces are available one wonders about its validity, and whether in fact the film wouldn't have been better served if cut together with a more regular chronology. Unlike the more purposeful skewed time structures of, say, Memento, Pulp Fiction or Bad Timing, it seems little more than a gimmick, and perhaps its true function is to mask the schematic nature of some parts of the plotting.

Along with a challenging story and structure, the film has a challenging, dirty realism look, using higher contrast and de-saturated colour for the edgy scenes, and lighting that reveals its protagonists warts-and-all. Sean Penn's now middle-aged face is an etched network of tramlines. Naomi Watts' good looks are rendered red-eyed and puffy. And Benicio Del Toro becomes like a sunken wreck in his battered, dishevelled hirsuteness. The three principals all give excellent performances, and the film's real excitement comes from watching actors stretching themselves and taking risks. The scenes involving heightened emotions - in particular the sex scenes - have a compelling realism that is quite extraordinary. So 21 Grams certainly succeeds as a tour de force of acting, and the direction of actors, and despite its questionable experimentalism it remains a powerful piece of work.

The director is known for his dislike of the trappings of DVD extras and didn't record a commentary for that reason. So there is just a trailer and a short making-of featurette - 21 Grams In Fragments, which, though brief, is informative and heartfelt. Iñárritu is shown on the first day of filming, expressing his fears to cast and crew, who come over as a close-knit dedicated bunch. Penn, Watts and Del Toro talk of their high esteem for the director and his work, and the opportunities the film offered them as actors. The interviews are blended with some good on-set footage showing rehearsals and conferences with the actors, cinematographer and editor. With two influential films under his belt, Iñárritu is clearly a director to watch.
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