The title of "21 Grams" is part of an unfortunate concept-packaging gimmick which serves as a sign that writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu (the team behind "Amores Perros") felt they needed some kind of hook to tie their otherwise inspired picture together.
Its only relevance comes in a somber, philosophical voice-over imparted by Sean Penn as he lies in a hospital room, awaiting death's call through what may be the last few beats of his failing heart: "They all say we lose 21 grams at the exact moment of death," he muses in a weakened whisper. "How much fits into 21 grams? How much is lost?"
And why did these guys feel so hard-pressed to come up with some vague, mythical, unifying notion for this otherwise spellbinding meditation on fate and redemption?
A non-linear, emotionally escalating collage of three lives on a tragic collision course, the film is blessed with innovative storytelling and the raw, stellar performances of its three lead actors, who completely disappear into their roles. Penn plays Paul, a math professor whose marriage has turned discordant with his rapidly declining health from a fatal heart condition. Naomi Watts is Christina, a former drug addict whose pendulum has swung so far the other way that sometimes she can barely comprehend her auspicious suburban existence as a wife and mom. And Benicio Del Toro is Jack, an intense former convict who found God in prison and now clings desperately (and sometimes detrimentally) to his unbending faith as he struggles against his buried rage and against a world he sees as unwilling to give him a fresh start.
Reflecting the spiraling turmoil that comes to entwine them all in the wake of a catastrophic accident, Iñárritu provides a splintered vision of these lives, unfolding the story not in a chronological narrative, but in puzzle pieces of raw emotions and formative events -- an ambulance and the implication of a traffic hit-and-run, or a gun and what (at first) seems like thoughts of suicide creeping painfully over a character's face.
Through grainy, viscerally intimate photography, Iñárritu puts you in the room, but unable to hear the conversation, as a phone call shatters Christina's storybook existence. But he also glances at her moments of bliss and at her addiction's rock bottom from years before. The director puts you at Jack's dinner table where his newfound fire-and-brimstone beliefs are imposed on the man's struggling welfare family. But the film also recalls the character's most crushing moments of doubt and self-loathing.
The effect is not disorienting because there's a powerful emotional thread that emerges as the film's fractured timelines slowly come together and reveal how these characters' lives have been suddenly torn apart by the one moment in time that connects them.
As the puzzle pieces begin to form a picture, Iñárritu also reveals a healthier, heartier Paul obsessed (to an unsettling degree) with becoming a savior to a despondent, unwelcoming Christina, while at the same time throwing his own marriage into further turmoil. But whether this transpires during her addict past (and before Paul's heart problems) or her grief-stricken present (after a transplant perhaps?) only becomes clear when more pieces are in place.
In his 2001 Mexican import "Amores Perros," Iñárritu used similar storytelling techniques and a similar seminal event -- a car crash -- to weave together a tapestry of crisscrossing stories. But it isn't his ingeniously interlaced stylistic ingenuity that drives "21 Grams" -- it's the acting.
Watts ("Mulholland Drive," "The Ring"), a rising star who continues to chose interesting projects in between more commercial efforts, is gut-wrenching in her fearless portrayal of a recovered life thrown into desperate, inconsolable desolation. Del Toro brings his character's tenuous but crushing grip on his born-again fervor into sympathetic, sharp relief. Penn is more subtle but no less moving as he portrays a man consciously and subconsciously re-prioritizing every aspect of his life after accepting that he is still alive only because someone else's death made it possible.
Take away the wistful and excessively intangible voice-over that bookends the picture (a sure sign that the filmmakers didn't know what else to do for a beginning and an end), and "21 Grams" is a near tour de force on all counts.