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:: 21 Grams

There is a good reason why this film was not released over Christmas because it would have killed the season’s festive mood. Now that we’ve sobered up and settled into the New Year, we can deal with weightier themes of loss, pain, loneliness, retribution and acceptance.

As in Amores Perros, Iñárritu’s debut film, 21 grams is based on a car accident, except that this film is much darker. The accident, a karmic event, irretrievably changes the destiny of three characters, forcing their paths to cross with grave consequences.

Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a mathematics professor with a terminal heart condition whose life depends on a heart transplant. He shares an estranged relationship with his wife, Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who desperately wants to conceive his child, persuading Paul, albeit reluctantly, into artificial insemination. Cristina (Naomi Watts) is a suburban mother of two young daughters and loving wife to architect husband, Michael (Danny Huston), ensconced in a comfortable neighbourhood. Her life crumbles when Jack Jordan (Benicio De Toro), a reformed felon and born-again Christian runs down her husband and two daughters.

Life for Cristina does not go on - it is hell – and she turns to her early drug-taking habit to ease the pain. Paul spends his days finding the donor of his heart. Jack turns himself in, in spite of the lack of any incriminating evidence against him. His decision leaves his long-suffering family devastated yet again, but worse still, he loses his faith in God and becomes a hardened man. For Paul and Cristina, grief and loneliness give way to retribution while Jack, upon early release, and already a tortured soul, rejects all things close to him, his wife and two young children.

It’s a simple bleak story that would have pained viewers to death were it not for that post-modern non-linear time/space narrative structure which, in this case, serves to intrigue us. The film hops forwards and backwards, and while confusing in the beginning, settles to a regular rhythm midway. By that time, we are either hooked into the story or dying for it to end.

One could come away admiring Stephen Mirrione’s editing or the grainy, handheld shots of the film depicting the grittiness of 21 Grams, but that would not do justice to the emotive and heart-wrenching performances of Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro. Penn delivers an intuitive mix of vulnerability, tenderness and stoicism in his character while Watts portrays inconsolable anguish with gripping realism. In my opinion, the standout performance belongs to Del Toro. He imbues his character with fervent religious conviction, toughness, compassion, guilt and despondency, making Jack Jordan a truly tragic figure that he is.

21 Grams is the sort of film we would watch for its art but it is not so remarkable as to leave a lasting impression.