Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 29, 2003 12:10 am 
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Chopped torments

The gifted Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu clearly likes fractured stories of intersecting lives. 21 Grams is even more fractured than the colorful, gritty Mexico City tale, Amores Perros.

Both concern three sets of people linked by a car accident.

But whereas the three stories in Amores Perros ran separately and in chronological order, the narratives of the three people in 21 Grams are chopped up into dozens of short segments and all shuffled together out of order. As a viewer you must decide in the end whether the minced editing works for you. Since scenes are often no more than a minute long and shift back and forth in time, understanding the cumulative development of the characters and of the events is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Since nothing is really explained, reading a plot summary before a first viewing of 21 Grams isn’t a bad idea: the first half hour will be much less puzzling if you do. When it’s all over, despite seeing some fine performances, you may feel more frazzled than enlightened or moved.

As a thumbnail summary has it: “A freak accident brings together a critically ill mathematician (Sean Penn), a grieving mother (Naomi Watts) and a born-again ex-con (Benicio del Toro).” The nexus of the story is a heart. Dr. Paul Rivers (Penn) needs one. Jack (del Toro) runs over a man who soon lies dying in a hospital. (The victim’s two young daughters also die.) The victim’s wife Cristina (Watts) okays the donation of her husband’s heart for a transplant, and Rivers, the mathematician, immediately gets it.

The transplant leaves Rivers burdened by a sense of guilt and indebtedness to the donor. He hires a detective to find out whose heart he’s got, and begins to stalk the dead man’s wife. This eventually leads to an affair between them, and in the finale to tracking down the driver (de Toro) who ran down the man and the two girls. Guilt is turned into revenge.

It is a given of 21 Grams that all the characters are under extreme duress, and most of the scenes are impassioned and violent. There is no building toward tension or toward release; no period alluded to when things were calm and happy. Rivers is in a painful relationship with a wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) whom he no longer loves and who is plaguing him with plans for an operation so she can have a baby by artificial insemination. These two are continually in crisis. We don’t meet Cristina (Watts) till the accident, which leaves her feeling maimed. Jack (del Toro) is a tormented man whose life of crime and substance abuse has been replaced by an equally uncomfortable life as a Pentecostal Christian full of repressed rage. His family life is uneasy, sometimes violent.

The movie maintains a wearingly feverish pitch. The powerhouse cast is challenged to work up to speed over and over again in a few seconds. Movie actors commonly have to do that, as shooting takes place in small units, often out of order. They seem to have been up to the task. But the question is whether the audience is. For us the unrelieved tension is wearying. Is there character development here, or just a steady emotional crescendo? Is there any other point to the movie’s unfolding than to assemble the various fractured pieces of the plot?

No doubt about the high voltage of del Toro’s, Watts’s, and Penn’s scenes. But some of the back-stories are fragmentary or unconvincing. Penn is a mathematician, supposedly, but his use of mathematics is restricted to some metaphorical talk about “fractals” with Ms. Watts when he’s beginning to woo her. He just seems to be Sean Penn in solemn suffering mode to me. Why is he so fretful with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and why if they were separated are they back together? What is the story of their relationship? What is Ms. Gainsbourg doing in this picture, with her British accent and her refined European ways? Why is Penn so set against Gainsbourg’s having an operation so she can get pregnant? Why is he so surprised and mad that she’s had a dangerous abortion in her past? There’s no time to develop these details progressively: they just seem part of a pervasive grumpy mood.

Ms. Watts’s character seems puzzlingly inconsistent. She enters the scene as a well off housewife with two kids and plenty of connections, including a father who lovingly comforts her at her husband’s wake. But right after that she suddenly develops a drug habit and a life of isolation. Supposedly she’s was a “party girl” and now reverts to type, but you have to take that on faith.

Only Jack’s (del Toro’s) history is fleshed out. You know he’s been a felon and a drunk: you can see this even in the extremity of his reformation as a Pentecostal and his brutality with his children at home, his clumsiness as a caddy who’s promptly fired, and his despair as a prisoner. Here is a violent hellfire-and-brimstone man who was a huge sinner and now is a tormented martyr who eventually insists on turning himself in – though he ran from the scene of the accident. Even with Jack, details are lacking, but it’s made clear that he abandons his family to accept guilt, does a prison term, and then gets out.

Rivers stalks Cristina for some time before he knows what he wants to do. She asks him to exact revenge for her husband’s death. Once that decision has been made, things would get really suspenseful and exciting, if the tale were told conventionally. The strange botched hunt would have a cool noirish flavor.

But all suspense is diffused by the fractal editing. The only payoffs are seeing Penn as a corpse (the transplanted heart didn’t work and he was always dying) – and hearing his spacey voiceover about everybody getting 21 grams lighter the minute they kick the bucket. These gestures toward a conclusion are topped off with a final arty shot of an abandoned swimming pool.

There’s huge ambition here, misguided pretension, some intense acting by talented people, and an abiding puzzlement as to whether the movie would have worked better if told conventionally or, conversely, would have fallen apart. There is always a suspicion when style gets in the way of content to this extent that someone is compensating for some fundamental lacks; that there’s an uncertainty about the validity of the material.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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