21 Grams

21 Grams

****

Reviewed by: Keith Hennessey Brown

Or, Amores Perros without the dogs.

This, at least, is the initial impression one gets of the new film from Alejandro Gonzelez Inarritu, collaborating once more with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga.

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Again, there are three distinct storylines, though they are intertwined to a far greater extent than in the Mexican film and, indeed, ultimately combine together, as foreshadowed by a number of disorientating flashforwards. And again a car accident provides the axis around which all the human drama revolves.

Sean Penn plays Paul Rivers, a college professor in need a heart transplant. His estranged wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg - clipped English tones and mannerisms slightly out of place) has returned to help in his hour of need, but also has an agenda of her own. She wants Paul's child; whether he is alive to see it grow up is secondary.

Benicio Del Toro plays Jack Jordan, an ex-con who has found religion. He won a pickup truck in a sweepstakes and, believing it to be a message from the Lord, has adorned the vehicle with the legend "Jesus Saves"

Naomi Watts plays Cristina Peck, an ex-junkie who has extricated herself from her former life and now leads a conventional middle-class existence with her architect husband and two young daughters.

One evening whilst driving home Jack's concentration lapses and he wipes out Cristina's family in a hit-and-run. While Jack anguishes over what he should do, Cristina is asked whether her brain-dead husband's organs can be used for transplantation, thereby giving Paul a replacement heart.

Recovering after the operation, Paul wonders where his heart came from, the strict policy against disclosing the donor's identity giving the lie to an earlier moment - one of the film's few obvious lapses of judgement - where the donor's and recipient's families unwittingly pass one another in the hospital.

Undaunted, he hires a private investigator, who soon discovers the whereabouts of Cristina and Jack, who has since decided, contra to his wife, that What Jesus Would Do is give himself up, but is also experiencing increasing doubts as to the value of a Lord whose divine plan has cast him in the role of child-killer.

Paul establishes a tentative relationship with Cristina, who has responded to the trauma of losing her loved ones by going back to drink and drugs. Initially hesistant, she slowly responds, two desperately needy individuals clinging to whatever they think the other can offer.

Finally, Paul decides they must confront Jack...

Even if 21 Grams lacks the sense of seeing something new that made its predecessor so welcome, it is still remarkably accomplished and, above all, a mature piece of filmmaking.

Thus, while the handheld camera is used to convey immediacy, it is never allowed to dominate over the content of the piece - Elephant and the Dogme school, are you listening?

Likewise, while there are necessarily allusions to other films - you cannot have a woman lose her family in an accident and go swimming without recalling Juliette Binoche in Kieslowski's Three Colours Blue, while the slow burn accident/revenge element brings to mind Penn's own The Crossing Guard and Claude Chabrol's The Beast Must Die - there's never any sense that it's all a game of intertextual reference spotting without any connection to lived reality (Yes, Tarantino, this one's for you).

The three central performances are near perfect. Penn and Del Toro constantly put you on a see-saw, as to which is better, each scene seeming to surpass the one before it, while Watts adds to her growing list of impressive dramatic credentials.

In the end, though, it is Del Toro who emerges as first among equals. Whereas Penn's body - as distinct from his facial expressions and world-weary delivery - looks too buff for a guy in a terminal condition, you really believe that Del Toro is going through hell with his character. The scene where Jack drunkenly attacks his religious tattoos with a heated knife remains a harrowing standout.

An equal, not a sequel, then, from one of cinema's brightest hopes. Shame they couldn't have come up with a better title, though.

Reviewed on: 04 Mar 2004
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21 Grams packshot
The lives of a junkie and ex-con and a college professor intersect.
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David Haviland ***

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Writer: Guillermo Arriaga

Starring: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Danny Huston, Clea DuVall, Chance Romero, Marc Musso, Paul Calderon, Catherine Dent

Year: 2003

Runtime: 125 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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If you like this, try:

Amores Perros