Monday, February 23, 2009

DVD: 21 Grams

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts
Year made: 2003

Soul Survival

Existence is a whimsical kind of beast; it is a path that at times seems beset on all sides by the cruelty of circumstance. As we walk down this valley of darkness we are left to wonder in dismay and amazement at the value of life and death, loss and hope…

In 21 Grams, director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros) more than simply contemplates these themes. Rather, he immerses his 35mm world in them, dissecting and scrutinising their impact on individuals and collectives, presenting us with a vision that is as tangled as life itself.

Much like Amores Perros, 21 Grams is the story of three separate lives that converge by way of a tragic car accident and are forever changed as a result. While the director’s stunning debut told the trio of narratives separately like ships passing each other on a stormy night, here they intertwine, connect and contrast inescapably.

Past, present and future are blurred not to create a pulp fiction, but to magnetise moments in time, heightening their impact and raw intensity in such a way that reduces us to pure spectators gripped by the performances and experience before us. In the hands of a less talented director it is impossible to imagine 21 Grams carrying anything close to the gravitas of intimacy Iñárritu creates with every single frame.

Sean Penn plays Paul Rivers, a mathematician who believes fate can be understood by numerical equations but can’t find an answer to his own. He is terminally ill, dying from heart disease, while he awaits a heart donor to provide him new life. It’s a sombre yet utterly compelling depiction that finally shows the full potential of this brilliantly talented actor.

Equally impressive is Del Toro, who seems to discover new depths with every character he tackles. As Jack Jordan, an ex-con who has turned to God for salvation, Del Toro is breathtaking with every Soul survival 21 Grams utterance, expression and movement his body is capable of. Jordan has put his life and faith in God’s hands because he cannot carry the personal guilt he feels. It is hard to imagine Del Toro ever topping this performance.

As for 21 Grams’ third act, there are just not enough superlatives to describe Naomi Watts. When we first meet her character, Cristina Peck, she is mid-confessional in her Narcotics Anonymous group. It is possible that her loss is the greatest of all and the succession of events that Watts is forced to endure throughout the film demands a full expanse of emotional reaches that few actresses in this world would even consider possible.

To say anymore would take away from the experience of watching a film that relies so much on the eloquence with which it delivers its insights into relationships and revelations therein. Iñárritu is a filmmaker who respects his audience enough not to spoon-feed his ideas, but use subtlety and devastation in equal measure where needed to delicately build his opus from middle to end to beginning, until the stories are resolved for better or worse; this is his canvas, like it or not, and it is left to us to make of it what we will.

Film: 5 stars
Extras: 1 star

If you like this why not try…
Amores Perros
One of the very best films of 2000. Don’t expect an easier ride though.

This review first appeared in DVD Review issue 64