Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 125 minutes
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With the help of downers like Mystic River, “House of Sand and Fog,” Sylvia and “21 Grams,” 2003 is going out in a blaze of big screen angst and ground zero for most of this celluloid pain and suffering has been Sean Penn. The actor did some of his most remarkable work in years. Unlike most reviewers, however, I hold the opinion that most of what was remarkable is to be found in “21 Grams.”
Though the new film from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros) has a number of themes in common with Clint Eastwood’s, the former far outshines the latter in terms of high impact writing, finely calibrated acting and sheer directorial daring. Both pictures explore the violent loss of loved ones and the transforming reaction to tragedy of both family members left behind and those in their gravitational pull.
In “21 Grams,” Penn plays a math professor counting down the days until his failing heart gives out. More or less resigned to his fate (he calls himself a member of the “pre-corpse club”), he skulks around his apartment dragging the oxygen tank that is his literal link to life and waiting for his wife to leave long enough for him to sneak a smoke in his bathroom.
When a father and his two young daughters are killed in a traffic accident, Penn winds up with the man’s heart in his chest and one thought in his head. Driven to make a connection to the person whose death gave him new life, he hires a private detective to find out who he was. All that’s left of that existence, as it turns out, is a large house now empty except for a disintegrating woman.
Naomi Watts does her best work to date in the role of the heart donor’s widow, a blonde beauty whose suburban dream has been blasted into more pieces than she could pick up in a dozen lifetimes. Alone in a world of hurt, she numbs herself with coke and booze until one day Penn appears and another option begins to take shape in her mind.
Together they track down the man responsible for the deaths, a small time criminal-turned-Jesus freak-turned-tortured zombie played by a very convincingly haunted Benicio Del Toro. Crippled by guilt and confused by his savior’s failure to steer him clear of catastrophe, Del Toro’s character is among recent cinema’s most compellingly tragic.
What begins for Penn’s character as a life-affirming act of gratitude gradually becomes twisted by Watts’ grief into a gesture of murderous chivalry. Because Inarritu tells the story in fractured, nonlinear fashion, we know from the start that, as bad as things may seem at almost any moment, they are certain to get worse. In spite of this, the director manages to build suspense masterfully. An approach to story structure this experimental could have proven distracting in the wrong hands but the filmmaker has perfected a sort of space-time origami and its effect is never less than dazzling.
In fact, the movie’s feeling of freshness and invention are impressive given how often we’ve visited similar territory over the last few years. The premise isn’t a terribly far cry from “In The Bedroom”‘s. Since “Memento,” lots of directors have shuffled their scripts into kooky experiments with chronology. You aren’t likely to find the surroundings familiar, however.
The subject matter in “21 Grams” is too emotionally raw, the filmmaking too hypnotic and the performances just too damned powerful. The title’s allusion to a measure of weight human beings supposedly lose at the moment of death is an evocative crock. Nothing of the kind occurs. Chalk it up to poetic license though. And rest assured that Inarritu doesn’t abuse it. That aside, each and every one of the movie’s 125 minutes is a moment of searing truth.
Posted on December 17, 2003 in Reviews by Rick Kisonak
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