It was much before he was celebrated at the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes. It was much before he joined Alfonso Cuáron and Guillermo Del Toro to be considered as one of “The Three Amigos” of Latin American cinema. It was much before he worked with the likes of Brad Pitt or Di Caprio – Alejandro González Iñárritu was a director who would play with narrative to give a new experience. After he launched his career in a triptych structured social drama Amores Perros (2000), Iñárritu strengthened his cinematic voice with 21 Grams (2003).
Referring to the controversial research of Dr. MacDougall that claimed existence of immortal human soul in 21 grams – Iñárritu’s second movie of his “Death Trilogy” elevates his unique voice to a different level altogether. Made on a larger scale than his previous Amores Perros, Iñárritu intentionally added a flavour of spirituality which blended well, adding a new dimension to his version of realism.
The film is about an ex-con Jack (played by Benicio Del Toro) whose out-of-order behaviour caused a fatal accident putting the film’s harrowing events in motion. Paul (played by Sean Penn), is in need of a heart transplant. Christina (played by Naomi Watts) is a recovering addict, who lost her family – and in a twist of fate, it is her husband’s heart which Paul gets as a transplant. It’s about how coincidences connect three strangers and intertwine their destinies. Iñárritu, with his screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga creates an intense poetic puzzle around this. It’s at the same time unsparing and emotional; despairing and hopeful.
The film has a fierce cast. Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts – the three leads worked wonders on screen. They portrayed the depth and intensity with sheer ease. You will invariably feel the pain that the characters carry through out with the range of wrenching emotions. Del Toro plays Jack – a character whose salvation is always slipping from him like an eel – with elan. Penn plays Paul, a poetry loving mathematics professor, who has just gotten back with his wife after his infidelities with his students. Penn’s glamour is overshadowed by a concerned look, which is a bit fastidious at moments.
But it’s Watts that almost stole the show as Cristina. You might have seen a power-packed performance of Watts in David Lynch’s Mullholand Drive. Here, she is more nuanced and even more sustained and often remarkable. Naomi Watts was undoubtedly one of the finest actors in the industry that time – and that shows in the film. She’s flawless throughout, giving Cristina the intensity and emotional range that is both real and intense.
Both Watts and Del Toro were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances in this film.
The film has very fine supporting performances as well. Charlotte Gainbourg, who played Paul’s wife, did an excellent job. Her face, so expressive, that her pain pierces through the silences on the screen. Melissa Leo, as Jack’s wife – also does tremendous work.
But the real show-stopper of the movie is the master himself – Iñárritu. He created a new cinematic experience as he tossed the fragments of life up in the air; gave life to each of them and then allowed them to fall at random. He mashed up time, place and events and challenged viewers to taste the unprecedented nature of life. This irresistible style of him – where on the verge of a revelation, he stops abruptly and picks up a new scene that is irrelevant to the previous one. The randomness of time, place and events in this can make you restless and engrosses you and finally engages you with the film so much so that when the myriad of scenes are juxtaposed to give the final shape – you’re already trapped in the pincer-like grip of the story. It’s almost engaging to an extent that you would be involved in solving the puzzle in the first part of the movie to make sense out of it. There lies the genius of the filmmaker.
Iñárritu has created the mood with a jarred and grainy visual almost resonating the journey that his characters are going through. The music is slow and moody. Gustavo Santaolalla‘s odd score fits rightly to the gloomy feel of the movie. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is in sync and provides life to the film. All these elements add to the moody and stylistic intent of the movie. Although the movie had a somber feeling through out, 21 Grams does offer a nugget of hope. It’s about redemption. It’s about optimism. In the second outing of his Death Trilogy, Iñárritu is hopeful. He refers to the immortal soul in his vision of death.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.