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Predicated on the magic of disjunctive editing, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams is as much jigsaw puzzle as movie. This fractured soap opera demands an active viewer. The soundtrack hiss at the New York Film Festival press screening was the whisper of people explaining it to each other.
No less showy than the young Mexican director’s 2000 debut, Amores Perros, but not nearly so brutal, 21 Grams (written by Guillermo Arriaga, who also scripted Amores Perros) opens somewhere in America with Paul (Sean Penn) and Cristina (Naomi Watts) alone together in bed; the movie spends much of the next two hours working its way back (or forward) to that scene. The first 30 minutes are a bewildering but not uninteresting succession of inexplicable situations involving spouses, children, hospitals, drugs, and the tormented ex-con former gangbanger turned Pentecostal, Jack (Benicio Del Toro).
Iñárritu’s tight camera focuses attention on the individuals rather than their context; his movie unfolds as a series of sharp vignettes, similar to Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (also edited by Stephen Mirrione). Paul is seen awaiting a heart transplant, donating sperm, and suffering from a beating—not necessarily in that order. Cristina is shown haggardly coking up and cheerily packing her kids off to school. Paul’s angry wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) wants to get pregnant by her dying husband. Jack languishes in jail and gets fired as a caddie because the country club swells object to his neck tattoo. Despite the unsorted jumble of temporal and causal relations, there is the sense that some fragile security is about to be destroyed. The mysteries deepen even after it becomes apparent that Cristina’s family has been obliterated by an accident that, as in Amores Perros, provides a mystical link between the three principals.
As Jack agonizes over his “duty to God” and Paul ponders his debt to his anonymous heart donor—the same premise employed by Clint Eastwood in Blood Work—Iñárritu ruminates upon the mystery of life. Accident or divine plan? Paul, a mathematician, flirtatiously tells Cristina that “there are so many things that have to happen for two people to meet.” (He doesn’t mention that he’s hired a private detective to facilitate their crossed paths.) The movie’s dubious philosophical treatise draws conviction from its high-powered cast—although no one could make convincing Penn’s final voice-over, explaining the title as the mass the body loses at death. Watts, who has the most difficult scenes, is splendidly mercurial; what’s surprising is that those professional storm clouds Penn and Del Toro are here as powerfully restrained as she is electrifying. (All three won acting awards when 21 Grams was shown in competition at the Venice Film Festival.)
The movie’s temporal logic is associative rather than structural—closer to chestnuts like Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad or the Julio Cortázar novel Hopscotch than the recent brainteasers Memento and Irreversible. Still, at once withholding and merciful, Iñárritu postpones the expected violence until the final act. A rush of tabloid nightmare images flashes by as a crucial motel-room brawl is shot with a brilliant absence of sound. You spend the movie dreading the sight of one thing, so of course you’re given another.
A straightforward 21 Grams would pack less emotional wallop. Indeed, given a linear progression, the movie’s New Age mysticism might seem merely sentimental. “How many lives do we live? How many times do we die?” It’s a measure of Iñárritu’s canniness as a cine-impresario that he understands that movies function as mass-produced recurrence and marketable eternity. 21 Grams is a sad puzzle, but then, so is life.