21 Grams: Disturbing, Ugly, and Awesome
Rob Levy
12/17/2003 12:01:19 PM

Make no mistake about it, 21 Grams is not the 'feel-good film of the winter. In fact, it is downright grimy, repulsive and ugly. This is a film that drags you behind a moving car of bleakness, despair and frustration. Experiencing 21 Grams is like watching a car crash and seeing everything, the twisted bodies, the blood and the death.

But it is fun to watch! Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu scored an Oscar nomination with last year's compelling "Amores Perros." He has taken his love of emotion and precision from that film and bled it over into this one. Despite the awkwardness and misanthropy, 21 Grams has been lauded as an early Oscar contender.

Told as a jagged, swerving narrative 21 Grams chronicles three individuals whose separate lives interweave, creating a tenuous film about death, salvation and redemption. Inarritu has gone above and beyond the call of duty creating this stark, somber film laden with rich images of agonized, damaged characters grappling against their humanity and mortality.

The three lead characters literally have affairs of the heart. Sean Penn plays Paul, a dying professor waiting for a heart transplant. Paul is trying to fend off feelings of guilt, fix his marriage and deal with the fact that his drive and will to live are gone.

Jack (Benecio Del Toro) is a reformed ex-con who leaves prison and finds Jesus in his heart. He is active in his church turning bad street kids into good apples. On the surface he is a devoted proud, hard working family man. However, lurking underneath the layers of sadness and recovery is a sweltering mass of anger and rage below the surface, waiting to get out. Jack uses his religion to tame these inner demons.

Christina (Naomi Watts, reinventing herself again) forms the last part of the triangle. She suffers from a broken heart caused by the tragic loss of her husband and children. Her resolve to self destruct resurrects her party-girl past with cataclysmic results.

The continuous thread found in these characters is that each one has ceased living. Individually, they have lost their gentleness, warmth and passion. Collectively, Paul, Jack and Christina face a crisis of the heart; testing their mettle, devotion and hope. These shattered, tortured and shallow lives fall apart in front of our eyes. Watching this downward spiral unfold is emotionally grueling.

As the dominoes fall, the sense of loss is amplified. Yes 21 Grams is a draining experience. But there is life amongst the smoldering cigarettes, smudgy emotions and dashed dreams. This salvation lies in seeing three terrific actors at the peak of their game.

Sean Penn is again generating Academy fancytalk. He has followed up a solid turn in Mystic River with his performance here. His emotionally crippled Paul teeters a line of hope and finality. He balances being alive and waiting to die brilliantly.

Naomi Watts should be in this year's Oscar fray. She portrays Christina as a woman who is on the verge. She is strong, willful and determined, but inwardly a frazzled mess. Her fall from grace culminates in powerfully intense scenes of pure fury and rage.

Rounding out the triumvirate is Academy Award winner Benecio Del Toro in a stunningly understated performance. He doesn't go overboard here. In fact, his even keel keeps everything believable. He has crafted a character filled with rage, faith and subdued sorrow that manages to propel the picture.

21 Grams closed out this year's New York Film Festival with a bang, starting immediate Oscar rumblings. In spite of the hoopla this caused, this is indeed an intelligent, creative and well-scripted movie. Both the acting and directing are superb. Mr. Inarritu brilliantly sets the emotional shadow play in motion by boxing his movie with gritty cinematography that has almost no pallor.

However, the Achilles heel is that at times 21 Grams is arduously painful, sad and claustrophobic. It is not a film for everyone. It is not a happy film. Despite this, though, it remains an altruistic film with amazing depth and turmoil.

After you see 21 Grams it will knock around your cinematic subconscious for awhile. This is a resilient and disturbing story of what it means to confront fate, hope, life and death.


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