21 Grams (15)

The heart of the matter
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The Independent Culture

This lugubrious, death-haunted movie is so painfully in earnest that you almost long for an opportunity to laugh. Yet the giggleworthy moments never come, and by the end of its gruelling span 21 Grams has secured a chastened kind of respect. It is directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga, the duo that gave us the magnificent Amores Perros, and it must be counted a remarkable feat of skill that they have taken in hand the elements of daytime soap and transformed them into serious moral drama.

The film asks a question, perhaps the biggest question of all: is there a meaning to life? And can it be answered in the time it takes to eat a vat of popcorn? It investigates the matter through the intersecting fates of three characters whose lives are affected in various ways by a car accident (much as it happened in Amores Perros). Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro), in and out of prison for much of his life, has found Jesus, to the advantage of his soul though not much to the delight of his wife and children.

Having been born again, Jack can't understand why Jesus would let him accidentally knock down and kill a man and his two young daughters. An ailing maths professor, Paul Rivers (Sean Penn), becomes an inadvertent beneficiary of the tragedy on receiving the dead man's heart via transplant. Stunned by this sudden lease of life, Paul seeks out the identity of the donor and ends up meeting the dead man's wife, Cristina (Naomi Watts), who has become mired in drugs and booze since her bereavement.

Summarised thus, the film sounds a little hokey. What sets it apart is its uncompromising structure. Iñárritu and his editor, Stephen Mirrione, aren't interested in narrative as a linear scheme but as mosaic; hopscotching back and forth through time, they see these characters' lives as a flurry of moments and scenes, and invite the audience to put the story together in their head.

So it is that at one point we see Cristina as a fond mum chivvying along her daughters - minutes later, she's spectre-pale in a bathroom, reeling away from a line of coke. Early on we learn that Paul is dying from a dicky ticker, but this is confused by a brief flashback - or flashforward - to him bleeding from a gunshot wound. As for Jack, the fragmentary style makes him the most difficult of all to fathom. He seems to have been blindsided, in no immediately discernible order, by a Damascene conversion, then sacked from his job, then the car accident, then the clink. From these Job-like trials he has emerged born again, but seriously, to tell the faint-hearted, "Jesus knows when a hair on your head moves".

Zealous, scripture-quoting Christians in movies tend to be either creeps or figures of fun, and when they also sport jailhouse tattoos you're already crossing the street to avoid them. So it's a surprise, and a credit to writer Arriaga, that Jack is neither a creep nor a buffoon; instead he becomes an almost allegorical figure of redemption through suffering. Indeed, 21 Grams seems to me a more persuasive lesson in the power of Christian faith than The Passion of the Christ.

Whether God has a plan isn't Paul's concern, but, restored by heart surgery, he does want to know why he survived when an innocent man did not. Penn, blistering (and Oscar-winning) as the bereaved father in Mystic River, is more withdrawn here, though not so fatalistic that he'll accede to demands for a child from his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It's as if he's seen enough of the world to know that he doesn't want anyone else suffering through it on his account. Penn and Del Toro are both outstanding in the way they imply deep distress in quiet gestures rather than scenery-chewing histrionics.

All the same, the acting honours must go to Naomi Watts, who had already hinted at a scary emotional range as the ingénue actress in Mulholland Drive. Here she has to do a scene rather like Penn's in Mystic River - the moment a parent is told of a child's death - and it's purely devastating, a paroxysm of anguish that seems to have nothing to do with movies and everything to do with life. Even when the movie doesn't seem to be making much sense, Watts finds a focus and intimacy that pulls you right into it.

What sort of movie is it? A very engrossing one, though I'd hesitate to call it profound. 21 Grams - its title refers to the weight a body loses at the instant of death, the weight, as it were, of the soul - gravely fronts up to issues of remorse, responsibility, faith and loss, and shrouded within Rodrigo Prieto's grainy, sepulchral photography one discerns a somewhat wilful determination to put us on a downer. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and when the technique and acting are as burnished as here, the desolate mood can be, paradoxically, uplifting. Believers may find in its climactic scene an acknowledgment that there is a higher purpose; for everyone else there's little comfort beyond the fact "life goes on". The world is often a desperate place, says the film, and nobody ever makes it out alive. But there are still reasons to stay in it while we can.