Anyone who saw the critically acclaimed Amores Perros knows that Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu is a man possessed by serendipitous fate. But what they probably don't know is that in 1996, González Iñárritu lost his young son Luciano to complications from a lung ailment, a tragedy that inspired him to make 21 Grams, his ambitious new film centered on the heart-wrenching death of two small children.
Like Amores Perros , 21 Grams (also written by Guillermo Arriaga) tells the fractured tale of three disparate characters who become inextricably linked by an ill-fated car accident. Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro (Traffic) plays Jack Jordan, an ex-convict turned born-again Christian, who accidentally kills a family on his way home from work. Consumed by grief, Jack decides to turn himself in to police, despite a heartfelt plea from his wife, Marianne (Homicide: Life on the Street’s Melissa Leo). Meanwhile, as Jack sits motionless in a prison cell, Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts), a reformed drug addict turned wife and mother, learns that her husband and two young daughters have been killed in an automobile accident. Reduced to a state of shock, Cristina tearfully agrees to donate her husband’s heart, saving the life of Paul Rivers (Sean Penn), a math professor with congenital heart disease.
Soon after he’s released from the hospital, Paul hires a private detective to track down Cristina, whom he eventually leaves his estranged wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg, daughter of British actress, Jane Birkin) for. But, the couple’s romance soon hits the skids when they go in search of Jack, propelling them toward a fateful moment in a dingy motel room.
Working for the first time in English with a kaleidoscopic script about tragedy and redemption reminiscent of the British film Heart, Arriaga and González Iñárritu turn 21 Gramsinto a cosmic jigsaw puzzle. Like Amores Perros, 21 Grams is told using a series of non-linear narratives that dart back-and-forth from past to present to future. At first, this stop-and-go chronology seems odd, as though the editors had randomly assembled a group of unrelated scenes. But 30 minutes later that all changes, and before you know it, a coherent narrative is taking shape. In fact, once you become intellectually engaged in 21 Grams, you quickly realize that had it been directed with a linear narrative, it wouldn’t have been as intense. What makes 21 Grams such a wild ride is its volatility. Just when you think you have it all figured out, it shifts into high gear, leaving you wondering what’s going to happen next.
But, it’s the characters that keep 21 Grams grounded. This, of course, is a testament to the talent and skill of Arriaga, who creates characters with discernible human flaws. It’s refreshing to find an accomplished screenwriter, who doesn’t judge his characters; he empathizes with them.
It’s difficult to describe how riveting 21 Grams truly is except to say that it’s one of the year’s best pictures. The performances are so rich and powerful; they virtually ignite the screen. Although more subdued here than in Mystic River, Sean Penn proves once again that like Marlon Brando, he can simultaneously convey masculinity and great animal pain. While Benicio Del Toro--the embodiment of quiet anger, seethes with self-hatred. But, it’s Naomi Watts in quite possibly her best role to date that will truly break your heart, leaving you with the urge to protect her until the pain is all but gone.