In their second feature, Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu once again use a car accident as the catalyst for different characters and stories to intersect. There’s Paul (Sean Penn), a mathematician who’s in “the pre-corpse club” unless the doctors find him a new heart. Complicating matters further is his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg)’s desire to have a baby from him before it’s too late. Then you’ve got Christina (Naomi Watts), a woman who tragically lost her family and is now turning to drugs and hard liquor. Finally there’s Jack (Benicio Del Toro), an ex-con who’s gone from a life of crime and sin to being a Jesus freak, but it’s not clear whether he actually understands the Bible’s words or if he’s just humming the tune.
The film constantly shifts back and forth chronologically, showing random moments from the past and present of the protagonists. This scattered narrative style is relatively involving, as we work at connecting the dots in our mind, but the more of the puzzle we put together, the less sense it makes. It’s not that the plot is complicated, it’s just difficult to buy the characters’ motivations. Here it becomes delicate, because going into details about what doesn’t work in the story would involve major spoilers…
You see, what happens is that Christina’s husband and daughters are killed by Jack in a hit and run. This part works, giving great dramatic scenes to the actors. Benicio Del Toro is filled with guilt but also anger, as he feels betrayed by God. Naomi Watts is devastated of course, and we can see once again what an amazing actress she is. It’s with Sean Penn’s character that things get screwy. He ends up getting a heart transplant from Christina’s late husband and becomes obsessed with her. He’s basically stalking her, but eventually she lets him into her bed and her heart… even after he’s told her the truth! Watts is a bit pissed off at first (“You have his heart, you’re in his house, you’re fucking his wife!”), but soon enough she’s back at looooving him and the two of them decide that the only way to get closure is to kill Del Toro’s character. This vigilante stuff is questionable for sure, but the screenplay never makes a good case for or against it.
( End of spoilers )
As an exercise in style, “21 grams” is pretty solid but still not on the level of “Amores Perros”, which had raw vitality and infectious energy, not to mention the rugged beauty of urban Mexico pouring out of every frame. Here there is some frantic hand-held camerawork, lots of faded colors and moody lighting patterns and impressively Byzantine editing, but thematically it’s as unconvincing as “Levity”, 2003’s other lovable-stalker flick.