“21 Grams” struts and shows off like a cowboy in a rodeo — the director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu pulls out all the stops in demonstrating to the world exactly what he’s capable of. Those who have seen his first work, “Amores Perros,” know it all already: The way time turns elastic in his lens so that it stretches like hot rubber and then snaps back at the most unexpected moments; his knack for weaving innocuous objects into the fabric of tragedy; the way he seems to probe and touch on something raw and exposed, both in his characters and in the audience witnessing their agony, ecstasy and pain.
“Amores Perros” was a sun-drenched, bloody corrida with a startling philosophical core, unfolding with grand messiness on the streets of Mexico. Now in “21 Grams,” Inarittu has recreated a similar world, but against the somber, manicured backdrop of an American suburb.
“21 Grams” — despite the knockout performances from the entire cast — belongs to the director. Because of this, “21 Grams” (apocryphally, the weight a human being loses at the time of death, supposed by some to be the weight of the soul) never really feels like a story so much as a showpiece.
But what a hell of a showpiece. The tangled, intricate plot that Inarittu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga delight in ripping to shreds, strewing all over the place, and gracefully fitting back together again, is a dance of editing. The film’s structure is never linear and even the completed puzzle is a multihued collage of story fragments, a tiny universe of random events and characters engineered by the director so that they collide and smash with chilling precision.
With no explanatory dialogue or voice-over narration, “21 Grams” progresses as a series of brief vignettes in the lives of the three central characters, before and after a freak hit-and-run truck accident. In one stroke, Cristina (Naomi Watts) loses her architect husband and two small daughters. Jack (Benicio Del Toro), a born-again Christian trying to give up the bottle, was the one who did the hitting and running. Racked by guilt and seeking self-punishment, he walks out, leaving behind his wife and children. Paul (Sean Penn) is a mathematics professor with a bad marriage, bad heart and only a few months left to live, who comes to love the grief-stricken Cristina.
Throughout, the director uses a digital camera — with harsh, unforgiving lighting, thrusting the lens into the faces of the characters and onto their bodies — tracing every spasm of pain and fragile sliver of joy. The emotions and events are strung together with more regard to impact (on the viewer) than logic. A lot of stamina is required on our part, not just to follow what’s going on, but to ingest such sequences as when Paul is lying on a hospital bed, his body convulsing as he retches, and then, a minute later, making love to Cristina in the house she had once shared with her family. At frequent intervals, the director drops back into the scene of Cristina’s husband and little girls walking home on that fated afternoon. He calls out to the daughters not to run too fast, says hello to a neighbor and then the sound of screeching tires, the thud of a falling body.
“21 Grams” is obsessed with the prelude to imminent death and the aftermath of tragedy. At times it seems downright manipulative, especially when the story reverts to Cristina, alone in her kitchen just before disaster crashes down and changes her forever: She sniffs the neatly folded stack of her children’s laundered clothes, smiles as she listens to her husband’s message on the answering machine: “We’ll be home in a few minutes.” (The last time she will hear his voice.)
Naomi Watts delivers what has been described as the finest performance of her career. More than when she’s in the throes of acute misery, it’s the sketches of tranquil happiness that move and shatter you.
The inherent paradox of “21 Grams” is that there are so many scenes designed to have this explosive effect on you that after a while, the effect (like a drug) starts to fade. You know the next fix will come, and this only adds to the hollow feeling of having one’s heartstrings plucked at will. Inarittu and his cast never miss a beat in playing out this grand orchestration of loss and redemption; despite the indie feel and low-budget trappings, “21 Grams” has the smooth, moneyed surface of a big studio production. There’s just so much sincerity here, such an attempt at gritty realness, that it’s impossible to forget even briefly the sum of art and craftsmanship that went into its making.
The character who punctures a hole in the airtight fiction of “21 Grams” is Jack’s wife Marianne (Melissa Leo). Her tough, craggy face and weary air tugs the film from its operatic agonizing into the realm of the ordinary, where just getting by from day to day is a reward. After hearing about the accident, she tells the distraught Jack not to turn himself in, to stay in the house until she returns, and drives post-haste over to the scene of his crime. The camera has her in profile as she stares at the corpses, covered in white sheets and about to be loaded into an ambulance.
Marianne surveys the mayhem and, immediately, an inner switch seems to click and somehow empower her to leave all this behind and resume the task of living. Her mouth is set in a determined line and there is an imperceptible shrug as she turns the steering wheel. “Life goes on,” she seems to be saying, or she will beat it with her fists to make it so.