Three highly talented actors, and an intricately fractured time frame characterise what is one of the best films to come out this year. It is profoundly harrowing, and intensely memorable, not least because the three converging storylines of the film merge past and present with a flair from director Alejandro Inarritu, that is unparalleled by any other film on release at the moment.
Sean Penn, enjoying what seems to be a peak in his career is in excellent form as Paul, a mathematician with a weak heart, who is given a second chance at living with a transplant. He conveys, throughout the film, a sense of immensely dark depression, as a man who cannot quite understand why he should still be alive. As two other storylines intersect with his own, the audience is also challenged as to what it means to live. The other two figures in this film are Jack (Benicio del Toro) and Cristina (Naomi Watts), respectively a born again Christian ex con, and a happily married woman with a history of cocaine abuse. These three diverse characters are bound together by a horrifying accident, but the audience is not for one second given the opportunity to think of this film in such simple terms as they watch it. Instead, the time frame shifts seemingly at random, the film actually starting long after the incident when Paul and Cristina have been drawn together.
The overall effect of this approach is highly demanding on anyone watching. If you are expecting a popcorn-munching blockbuster, this work is to be avoided. However, the initially confusing structure is rewarding if you pay attention to how the chaotically intertwined lives form together, and the intricate patterns that Inarritu’s direction creates. The film definitely revels in the details of the acting and plot – it wants its nuances examined closely, and forces you to do so by moving between different periods in its chronology so fluidly that you feel you have to watch every second, lest you miss something important. Crucially, the film provides enough substance, intelligence and superior acting to ensure that this intensive way of viewing never becomes tedious. Naomi Watts, of ‘Ring’ and ‘Mulholland Drive’, is exceptional in this respect, a woman who almost regresses to her drug steeped early years as her marriage is destroyed.
You could say that Inarritu was trying to grasp the feeling of the immediate impact of the accident, to achieve a sense that these three lives were irrevocably changed in a vast variety of ways in an instant. If this is his intention Inarritu has succeeded. You leave the cinema shaken and unsettled, cursing the times whenever you rubbernecked at an accident or indulged in a little schadenfreude, as Inarritu aims not to simply entertain but to utterly absorb you in this story of tragedy and hope, to really look hard at the dark implications of what happens on screen. As if to reflect the details which you have to endure, the title of ‘21 grams’ is supposed to suggest the mass lost by the body at the point of death- some believe it is the weight of the soul. You leave the cinema thinking that possibly this weight has been added to your own.