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21 Grams (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2003)
Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s second film 21 Grams marks his debut American feature. Similar to his explosive, and superior, debut Amores Perros, it tells a simple story about fate that examines the events surrounding a tragic automobile accident. With a trio of well-respected actors (Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro) in the lead roles, the movie seems poised to reap critical praise and plaudits when it opens this November. Though it's got a top-notch cast, this melodrama utilizes a time structure that works against our ability to best understand the characters emotionally. Without spoiling anything, I'll note that by utilizing the plot structure that it does, it's attempting to make big statements about faith, coincidence and justice, but those attempts fall flat, leaving us with a melodrama that dangerously encourages intellectual questioning that it can't withstand. Since Inarritu doesn’t show these events chronologically, our sympathies aren't often aligned with those of the characters, leaving us in a privileged (or, at times, non-privileged) space where the character in question's dilemma is something somewhat foreign to us and the constraints of this mode of in-your-face storytelling are laid bare.
Since the director’s omniscient point of view, and not the point of view of any character, dominates the movie, it’s tough to grasp the immediacy of the performances, which don’t pack as much impact as they otherwise might. When one character opts not to press charges against Del Toro character, we don’t balk much because we’re aware of his personal struggles with his crime. The character making that choice doesn’t have this same information, however, so even though the audience can understand the decision somewhat, the audience views it from a different place emotionally. Worse yet, since we’re aware of the director’s overall scheme for this plot, the presence of God’s (or the director’s) grand scheme is so apparent that it undermines the movie’s time spent grappling with faith. Because we know it’s all going to come together (which is something of a lie itself, since life rarely presents justice in accidents like these), the story told in the film doesn’t test our faith. It only confirms it. As 21 Grams moves into its second hour, and the straightforward narratives becomes less obliquely presented, it provides more frequent opportunities for the audience to understand precisely what a character is going through at a given moment. As it begins to slow down, and its direction becomes apparent, one can’t help but wonder why Inarritu felt it necessary to present this story as a puzzle to begin with. By taking away the element of surprise, and sacrificing our closeness to the characters’ shifting emotional states, the movie is trying to present itself as something more than the melodrama that it is, but it doesn’t offer much to chew on that the average melodrama doesn’t. “Numbers are a door to understanding a mystery bigger than us,” says Penn’s mathematician, but the only mystery here involving numbers is the significance of the title, which isn’t revealed until the closing monologue.
Del Toro’s plot thread, told with the fewest temporal shakeups of the three, comes across the strongest, even though it’s Watts that gives the best performance (though her best acting moment is more a result of Clea DuVall’s expression than her own). Cumulatively, though, the movie fails to yield the insight that something this dour and downbeat probably should. Since the chronology settles down as the film precedes, it suggests that the organization of scenes is at least partially employed due to a lack of faith in the audience’s ability to accept a storyline that doesn’t make its disparate threads readily apparent. Aside from structuring his film indirectly, Inarritu does an adequate job of directing. The bleached out look and handheld camerawork here recall Soderbergh’s Traffic, especially with the presence of Del Toro and editor Stephen Mirrione. Despite the consistently raw emotional tone, it’s nowhere near as intense a viewing experience as Amores Perros. Spare organ music plays throughout before mounting steadily and unnecessarily during the denouement (at least it’s not opera). Annoying smaller touches abound. For example, there’s a book lying behind Penn when he faces Watts titled “Impostors” and a tendency to turn children into metaphors for guilt or happiness. Easy metaphors are no surprise, though, when the worldview is as facile as this. “Some things have to happen for two people to meet,” Penn’s character quips, but most of those things here seem to involve the screenwriter’s willingness to involve himself in contrivance in an attempt to convince the audience of the presence of order in the world.