21 GRAMS directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, written by Guillermo Arriaga, produced by Iñárritu, Ted Hope and Robert Salerno, with Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro and Melissa Leo. 125 minutes. An Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Friday (November 28). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies (page 104). Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu made a very splashy debut with Amores Perros, a Mexican pic nominated for best-foreign-film Oscar that tracked three stories evolving from a traffic accident in the middle of Mexico City. For his American debut, he and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga have constructed a story about three strangers whose lives become intertwined because of a car accident. Which doesn't mean he's repeating himself. 21 Grams has the most scrambled time scheme of any mainstream release in ages, leaping back and forth from before to after and leading up to the present, allowing the three stars, Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro, to shriek, writhe, weep, sweat... did I mention weep? At a certain level, this is a thespian's wet dream, because it lets actors work in unattractive clothes, bad lighting and horrible conditions to prove how serious they are.
According to a recent article in the Sunday New York Times, the marketing folks hate getting good reviews with the words "bleak" or "grim" in them, because it's hard to sell bleak and grim to the multiplexes.
Well, sorry, guys, this is really grim. It's an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. The director and screenwriter drag their actors through a set of emotional hells - Penn as a man in need of a heart transplant, Watts as a woman whose husband is killed in the accident and Del Toro as the alcoholic ex-con behind the wheel. I apologize if this spoils the story, but because of how the film is constructed, anything you say about the plot or characters functions as a spoiler.
Indeed, watching the film at the Toronto International Film Festival was a good deal like working a really complicated jigsaw puzzle. We're tossed into the story without a moment's orientation. I initially thought, from the way the images were composed and the characters interacted , that Penn and Watts had a relationship and were chasing a guy who'd stiffed them in a drug deal.
Rodrigo Prieto, who shot Amores Perros, 8 Mile and just as a change of pace from urban grit, Frida, underlights the film in a way that catches the characters' desperation.
While Penn and Del Toro deliver what we expect from them, a kind of slow-motion, underwater brooding that says, "I can torture myself all day, I don't need anyone's help," Watts is unexpectedly good. The star of Mulholland Drive and The Ring is stepping way up in class here. Penn and Del Toro tend to suck up most of the air in any scene, and the studiously deglamourized Watts holds her own against Penn, which is not easy.
Sorry, marketing folks - 21 Grams is a powerful, raw, emotional nightmare of a film, as grim as damnation. It's a tremendous piece of work, but it's difficult to imagine who might want to see it. Arty masochists, perhaps?