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|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E||
dir Alejandro González Iñárritu|
scr Guillermo Arriaga
with Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo, Clea DuVall, Danny Huston, Eddie Marsan, Paul Calderon, Tony Vaughn, Marc Thomas Musso, Teresa Delgado
release US 21.Nov.03; UK 5.Mar.04 03/US 2h05
The weight of the human soul: Penn and Watts (above), Del Toro (below).
After the raw power of Amores Perros, Iñárritu is back with another devastating drama that taps into some deep emotions. It's a fragmented story in which each scene is a puzzle piece that falls into place as plot strands intersect at two major events. But in the way it's edited there's also an emotional through-line that really moves us. Apparently, 21 grams is the weight we all lose when we die ... the weight of the human soul?
Three people's lives collide in unpredictable ways: Paul (Penn) is waiting for a heart transplant, struggling in his relationship with his wife Mary (Gainsbourg), who desperately wants to have Paul's baby. Especially if he dies before a new heart is found. Christina (Watts) is a suburban housewife with a loving husband (Huston) and two precocious daughters; but when she goes through a harrowing experience, her drug-fuelled past comes back to haunt her. And Jack (Del Toro) is an ex-con who is seriously trying to mend his ways. Maybe too seriously. He's now a Bible-thumping fundamental Christian, and his wife (Leo) and kids have all new reasons to worry. These three people come together with astonishing repercussions.
Iñárritu is dealing with love, grief and revenge in provocative ways that Hollywood would never dream of, avoiding the sermons and obvious morals in lieu of a hauntingly personal story of redemption. The cast is more than up to the challenge: Penn delivers another riveting, reflective performance as a man trying to find the even keel in life and failing miserably. Del Toro dredges up his character's innermost demons and puts them all over his face in a way that makes you both fear him and love him. And Watts gives another stunning, revelatory performance as a woman who crosses the gulf between sanity and hysteria and hasn't a clue how to get back. Superb support from Leo, Gainsbourg and Russo (as Jack's badly unsettled son) adds to the film's authenticity. And it's filmed with a coarseness that keeps us on the edge, while non-sequential editing teases us with glimpses of the past and future, but maintains the powerful central thrust. In the end it's perhaps too harrowing; the story is so explosive that we can't really identify with it. But in the beautifully written and played characters we do examine our lives in a completely new way.
john r. patton, net: "i mean talk about raw! i personally think naomi watts was better in it than in mulholland drive (where her characters after all were either cardboard or loony). of course christina gets loony but it is more understandable." (18.Nov.03)
David Haviland, London: "Like Amores Perros, it features a fractured narrative which jumps around the story, cutting between past, present and future. This is initially confusing, but after awhile the main chronological thread becomes clear. The filmmakers try to show us scenes in order of their importance to the narrative, giving away the ending early on to ensure that the audience is focussed on the why and not the how, and escalating the sense that the tragic events are predestined. As this innovation suggests, 21 Grams exhibits a rare passion for the medium itself. It’s unsurprising then that the cinematography is striking, and what little music there is is discreet and effective. The performances are generally excellent, although I found Naomi Watts a touch melodramatic. This is a thoughtful meditation on death, with complex well-drawn characters. However despite the impressive skill on show the film fails to engage as a story, partly perhaps because we do already know the ending. The characters are selfish and unpleasant, and the film’s message is depressing and fatalistic. Towards the end it becomes increasingly portentous and humourless (particularly in the explanation of the film’s title) and we come away wondering what might have been had the material been approached with a lighter touch." (30.Jan.04)
Phil G, Rugby: "This was truly amazing cinema. Anyone who has lost a loved one please avoid. It smacks the emotions. I may have missed something but the whole was optimistic. Del Toro was the best thing and you should see it just for that performance. Watts' rants were powerful too. This was great cinema pure and simple. Destined to be a true classic like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction I betcha." (8.Mar.04)
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