Amores Perros director sews together disparate lives in complex storyline of 21 Grams
The resoundingly gloomy 21 Grams, the new English-language production from the team that made Amores Perros, is both perplexing and fascinating. And in this case bewilderment and intrigue are more or less inseparable.
There’s a dark, tangled story zigzagging through this harrowing picture, but part of the deal is that this balefully melodramatic tale comes to us in a partially scrambled order of chronology. In the end, the narrative arc pretty much sorts itself out, but along the way the abrupt shifts in time and place keep us guessing and get us involved in the characters’ situations in ways that might not otherwise occur.
The basic situation verges on rank melodrama. A math teacher (Sean Penn) with a heart transplant begins to fall in love with the widow (Naomi Watts) of the heart’s donor, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident by an ex-con (Benicio Del Toro). The grieving widow, who has also lost her two young daughters in the incident, urges her would-be lover to exact revenge from the ex-con.
Scrambled chronology cannot entirely hide the melodramatic excesses in all this, but it does permit us to view the characters and their dilemmas without getting immersed in a blinding fog of oversized emotions. Nothing works out quite the way you might expect or hope in 21 Grams, and the fragmented storyline helps provide complex, intriguing perspectives on a host of volatile subjects—drugs, infidelity, broken families, religious faith, hope and despair.
And part of the peculiar power of 21 Grams comes of the sense of mystery that it and its actors bring to the main characterizations. The anonymously American settings notwithstanding, director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga seem less concerned with social commentary than with dramatically evoking quasi-timeless uncertainties of character and fate in a contemporary setting.
The compelling performances by Penn, Watts and Del Toro are augmented by solid supporting work from Melissa Leo (as the ex-con’s fiercely supportive wife) and Charlotte Gainsborough (as the math teacher’s unhappy spouse). The weirdly burnished cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto is often as bleakly haunting and evocative as it was in Amores Perros.