“21 Grams”, of course, does not really carry a culinary meaning in this film’s context. Rather, it symbolically represents the amount of weight lost by a human body upon death (Referring to the soul, this is of course an urban myth). And, indeed, death suffuses the lives of all three of our protagonists. Mathematician Paul Rivers (Penn) needs a heart transplant very soon if he is to stay alive. And well-to-do Cristina Peck (Watts) and ex-con Jack Jordan (Del Toro) are about to be connected by a nightmarish, mortal tragedy, that soon expands to include Paul in its radius as well.
As with Inarritu’s previous effort “Amores Perros,” the story of “21 Grams” changes its focus seemingly at random between the three main characters, moving in no kind of set order. The beautifully crafted script by Guillermo Arriaga ties everything together masterfully. Despite the complexity of the storytelling method, I was never confused for a second. Quite the opposite, in fact… I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the unexplained gaps in the story to be filled. The ultimate resolution, if you think about it, might be cheesy as hell in others’ hands, but the way in which it unfurls here makes it seem as natural as anything.
This is the type of movie where you don’t want to spoil a thing…one where you just tell all your friends to “go see it,” and you refuse to tell them any more than that. Suffice it to say that Jack — the one with a criminal past — is a deeply religious man, burning with the fervor of the newly converted. Indeed, he puts God above his own family. When the unthinkable happens, Jack is forced to question the existence of the deity in whom he formerly believed as if he was renting the next room over, and the shock nearly destroys him. Del Toro will make you, too, a believer. Cristina has to confront her tragic past so that she can move on with her life, while Paul has to make the most of whatever time he has left.
A gritty, realistic shooting style (almost all shots are done with a handheld camera) reflects the warts-and-all portrayals of the characters. None of these folks is a saint, by any stretch of the word. Jack vacillates between negligence and self-pity, while Paul — no simple invalid — is guilty of using people and of selfishness on an almost epic scale. Penn, who really is looking more and more like Robert De Niro as time goes on, expertly captures Paul’s swings between aimlessness and determination. Charlotte Gainsbourg puts in a good performance as Paul’s long-suffering girlfriend. Cristina is the least complex of the three main characters, but Watts plays her scarred character with a nice volatility (I’d be remiss to mention that the two young actresses playing her daughters are as cute as buttons as well). Despite — or more likely because of — their faults, we feel for all of these characters as their struggle to do what they feel they must leads them through tragedy and into redemption. Penn, Del Toro and Watts wring out everything they can give here, and convey their characters interior lives to complement the big dramatic moments well.
If you enjoyed the visceral, intense moviegoing experience of a film like “Requiem for a Dream,” then “21 Grams” is the movie for you to see this winter.Rating: A