Sean Penn as Paul
Benicio Del Toro as Jack
Naomi Watts as Christina
Charlotte Gainsbourg as Mary
Danny Huston as Michael
Clea DuVall as Claudia
Chance Romero as Clubber
Marc Musso as Freddy
Teresa Delgado as Gina
Stephen Bridgewater as P.I. Austin Donneaud
Kevin Chapman as Pauls School Buddy
Carlo Alban as Lucio
Paul Calderon as Brown
Jerry Chipman as Christina’s Father
Catherine Dent as Anna
Melissa Leo as Marianne
Denis O’Hare as Dr. Rothberg
Paul (Sean Penn) is the recipient of a heart transplant, who spends his recovery time seeking out the relatives of the heart donor.
Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is an ex-convict trying to make up for his past errors while supporting his family, only to have a sudden tragedy threaten to take everything away from him.
Former addict Christina (Naomi Watts) lost her entire family, when her husband and two daughters were killed by a hit and run driver, leaving her grieving, suicidal and seeking revenge.
These three disparate characters and their stories make up the majority of 21 Grams, the latest film from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, who directed the Oscar nominated Amores perros in 2001. Like that film, 21 Grams tells separate interlocking stories, but Innaritu takes things one step further, creating a robust film experience that attempts to explore the entire life cycle from birth to death, including everything from religion to drugs to sex and everything in between.
The movie’s title comes from the weight that the human body loses when they die, and most of the film deals with the different aspects of dying and mourning, even though the three central characters face the theme from different angles. Sean Penn’s Paul has been saved from death by the unknown donor whose heart he has been given, Naomi Watts’ Christina has seen her entire family taken from her, and Jack feels remorse for having taken the lives of others. Ultimately, the movie is about three tortured souls living with regrets, looking for closure and trying to make amends for their past actions. 21 Grams follows along similar lines as Todd Field’s In the Bedroom, the epitome of how a strong cast and great performances can make for a riveting dramatic film. (It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the two movies share an executive producer in Ted Hope.)
The plight of the lead character is a bit like that of Clint Eastwood in his 2002 movie, Blood Work, which also dealt with the actions of a heart transplant recipient. Fortunately, 21 Grams is handled more intelligently than that crime thriller, and it is more firmly based in the real world. The movie’s most interesting question is if someone has their heart replaced, do they stay the same person or do they start feeling more like the person from whom they received the organ? Like In The Bedroom, the movie also deals with avenging the death of loved ones, so it’s no surprise when Penn falls for the widow, promising to help get revenge on the driver that took her family away. Their relationship does not bode well for Paul’s wife Mary, who returned to him to help him recover from his operation and has been trying unsuccessfully to have his child.
What makes 21 Grams different from similar dramas is the brilliant non-linear nature of the storytelling. It’s as if Innaritu chopped up the story, threw the pieces into the air and then let them fall as they may. The way that the story flows in and out of the past and future makes for one of the most intriguing storytelling puzzles since Memento.
Opening with an unrecognizable Penn sitting on a bed next to a nude woman, the movie then cuts to him lying in his deathbed. Whether or not this is a scene from his past or the future is left up to the viewer to determine, but as one thinks they have begun to understand the broken timeline and knows where things are going, Innaritu throws in a twist that changes how one views the character and their actions. Once the viewer adjusts, another twist is thrown in, keeping one guessing about what might happen next. When all of the threads are finally tied together, you begin to realize how ingenious 21 Grams is as a piece of filmmaking.
Granted, not everyone who sees 21 Grams will have the resolve to follow the story and all of its twists, but patience and concentration are repeatedly paid off. Because of the non-linear nature of the film, it’s hard to tell how much time has passed between some of the segments. The transformations that the characters experience, both physically and emotionally, makes them hard to recognize at times. That said, the clever storytelling technique never overshadows the story, nor does it take away from the amazing performances.
Sean Penn’s performance as a vengeful parent in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River has received a lot of attention, and the buzz is that he’s a shoe-in for a Best Actor nod at the Academy Awards next year. His performance in 21 Grams is far superior, giving the character of Paul far more depth and credibility. There’s even a similar scene in the two movies, but Penn seems to be more determined to make this one work, possibly since it was shot after the completion of Mystic River. Sadly, he will probably get more recognition for the bigger budget major studio film than this innovative indie.
Likewise, Del Toro’s moving performance as the quiet, hulking Jack is even better than his Academy Award winning role in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. From early in the movie, where he is trying to help young gang members avoid the pitfalls that put him in jail to his own attempts to deal with prison life, the pain of Jack’s remorse is felt deeply by the viewer. It’s an interesting contrast to the pain felt by the other characters.
Easily the best performance of the trio is that of Naomi Watts in an atypically unglamorous role. She is particularly unrecognizable at times, breaking away from the flawless beauty she played in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and the transformation she goes through from before and after her family’s death is one of the finest performances of the year. Likewise, Charlotte Gainsbourg gives a moving, yet underrated, performance as Penn’s wife, as she tries to cope with the changes in his behavior after his operation and dealing with the secrets she’s kept from him.
Filmed mainly in Memphis and Albuquerque, the cinematography is a step above Innaritu’s previous film, and the setting allows the sun to play a large part in the lighting decisions and the film’s beautiful color scheme. While the use of handheld cameras in a film can sometimes be jarring and hard to watch, the camerawork in 21 Grams is particularly smooth, allowing one to quickly forget that they’re watching a movie rather than just observing how these three lives play out.
Stirring and poignant, 21 Grams is sure to elicit much thought and discussion about how the pieces fit together and why the characters do some of the things that they do. It should also do for Alejandro Inarritu what Pulp Fiction did for Quentin Tarantino, in giving him American credibility as an original and innovative filmmaker. It is simply one of the best movies of the year.
21 Grams opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 21st, and expands into other cities over the course of December.