In his first English-language feature, 21 Grams, director Alejandro González Iñárritu choreographs the dread follies of life and death. The crushing import of life-blood and semen among three dangerously lost souls does not a light-hearted holiday outing make, but Iñárritu's film is deeply affecting nonetheless, tapping universal fears and employing potent performances from Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro.
Working again with novelist-turned-screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (the duo collaborated on the Mexican production Amores perros), Iñárritu traffics in grand themes with a raw urgency and a signature style of denatured colors, light-washed yet surreally vibrant. Here, he ups the ante once more in the post-Tarantino non-linear narrative sweepstakes. Putting the story on shuffle play (with the help of Oscar-winning editor Stephen Mirrione), Iñárritu makes each scene a dot which must inevitably connect. In the meantime, the audience puzzles over the chronology while intuiting the horrible resonance of the story's dramatic irony. With a title which alludes to the weight proverbially lost in the moment of death, Arriaga writes an encyclopedic reference of mortality (early in the film, a doctor hands Penn's character his heart--"the culprit," as he calls it--in a mason jar); the film also writhes with Christian guilt and self-doubt, exacerbated by nagging faith and hope of salvation.
In a bit of unlikely (yet welcome) casting, Penn plays a math professor named Paul. At some times in the chronology, Paul appears healthy and, at other times, on death's door, but the nature of the progression remains obscure until well into the film. Similarly, Watts's Cristina leads a happy home life with husband and kids in one thread, but in another, hers is a deeply-shaken, drug-addled existence bordering on profound violence. Del Toro plays Jack, a volatile, born-again ex-con with compounding troubles: in the face of prejudice (and with a wife and two kids to support), he has more faith than income. A Job-like catastrophe tests his already unstable existence.
Del Toro and Watts each convey tremulous shock and roiling pain with credible intensity, and Penn--perhaps besting his Mystic River triumph--ranges from the labored breathing and go-for-broke abandon of a dying man to the tender fragility of a man inadvisably in love. The moment which marks a first kiss between Penn and Watts encapsulates the sensitivity of the leading performances, tentativeness and longing prefiguring emotional meltdowns. Among the supporting cast, Melissa Leo does especially fine work as Del Toro's put-upon wife.
Would the story be more effective in chronological order? I doubt it. Iñárritu capitalizes on the form's ability to upend false assumptions; the form also encourages intriguing side-by-side comparisons of the same people at two different points on their own timelines. Either way, the film is a heavy-handed wallow in the worst kinds of pain, but even if it finally strains under its own weight, the cathartic 21 Grams touches the unlikely power of tragedy.