Alejandro González Iñárritu Finds New Life in a Film Obsessed with Death, "21 Grams"
by Peter Brunette
With the first announcement of "21 Grams," some feared that the dreaded sophomore slump would strike Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, after his amazing debut with the much-praised (deservedly) "Amores Perros." Apparently defying fate, he even decided to take on, as his second major project, a film in English, with high profile stars like Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, and the quickly rising Naomi Watts. But we needn't have worried. "21 Grams" is a triumph from beginning to end. This time around, however, there is plenty for critics to argue about and, unlike with "Amores Perros," not every one will agree. For my money, though, the themes and narrative techniques that festoon the new film like wonderful gifts to the audience are at least as rich and challenging as those found in the director's first film, and, with a newfound interest in big dramatic scenes and expressively risky acting, Iñárritu has extended his palette even further, and constructed for himself an even more ample toolbox.
It is probably unwise to know too much about the film's plot beforehand, because a large part of what Iñárritu is trying to accomplish is dependent upon the necessary work expended by the audience in reconstructing the film's profoundly tangled storyline. Suffice it to say that "21 Grams" revolves around three characters: a 41-year-old math professor with a bum heart (Penn) who's about to die if he doesn't get a transplant; a young woman (Watts) with a nice-guy architect husband and couple of adorable little girls who suffers a horrible tragedy that wrecks her life; and a born-again ne'er-do-well named Jack Jordan, who is complexly incarnated by Del Toro.
Where Iñárritu told three stories that magnificently came together in a final scene in "Amores Perros" -- with a huge assist from his regular screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, it must be pointed out -- here, with the same writer providing ballast, it's more or less one story with three different focal points. Flashbacks and flashforwards (sometimes they can be either, depending on your point of view) appear frequently and randomly, and we often don't know what's going on in a specific scene until much later in the film, and then only barely. As new data comes in, we're constantly forced to recalibrate our feelings.
Somehow, however, rather than being annoying, our lack of understanding serves as a spur to know more, and ends up, strangely enough, becoming a principal source of our emotional involvement in the film. It's as though our struggle to understand the very narrative we're watching mirrors the characters' struggle to construct meaningful lives in the face of an indifferent universe, along with our common struggle to make sense of the whole shebang. And, once we know what has happened (and what is about to happen), the apparently innocent, pre-catastrophic flashbacks are devastating. Iñárritu is also a master of sound, as for example when he goes in one scene from utter silence to intensely pounding drums by its end, a talent on magnificent display in his segment of "11' 09' 01," clearly the best of that very mixed lot.
Our nearly constant lack of full knowledge of what's going on also puts tremendous pressure on the actors, who must convince us in highly emotional scenes that don't benefit from the narrative push that conventional films routinely benefit from. Sean Penn is better than ever (and yet much less embarrassingly mannered than he was in the supposedly great actor's movie, "I Am Sam"), and won a best actor prize in Venice for his great work here. Benicio del Toro is deeply nuanced as the ex-con who still can't put away his violence after he's found God. But the greatest revelation of all is Naomi Watts, who was mesmerizing if not particularly deep in "Mulholland Drive" (and, alas, utterly superficial in the lame "Le Divorce"). She has several scenes in "21 Grams" where she's screaming so hard that her voice becomes little more than an expressive squeak, and you don't dare breathe for fear of missing a single second, a single syllable.
The film's title refers to the amount of "matter" that the body is said to lose at the moment of death and, clearly, if you want to attribute these evanescent grams to the soul, that's your prerogative. The beauty of the film, though, is that Iñárritu doesn't, at least not overtly. Rather, he lets each individual, in the face of the inexplicability of life, come to his or her own conclusions. It must be admitted that the director does make a couple of missteps here and there (at one point the Penn character asks the doctor "will I be saved," ostensibly referring to his life, but a little too obviously referring to something else as well), and Penn's character is not very convincing as a math professor, a biographical item that comes up exactly once in the film. But these are mere cavils in the face of the film's profound meditation on the meaning of death, the visceral, feral reality of family (rather than the abstract "family values" we hear so much about), the corrosive effect of guilt, the soul-destroying power of profound grief, and a million other things too subtle to put in a list. By the end of this challenging, magnificent film saturated by death, new life springs forth, and not least the new life that real art always brings in its wake.