DIRECTED BY Alejandro González Iñárritu
STARRING Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts
Opens March 5, Cert 15, 124 mins
You could call it Difficult Second Album Syndrome. In cinema as much as in music, the burden of anticipation heaped on vital new talents is often enough to sap their creative juices, and invariably detonates a critical backlash. Just ask Alejandro González Iñárritu, the young Mexican director who erupted onto the world stage with Amores Perros almost four years ago. Coming back to an Everest of expectation with his first feature in English, Iñárritu knows the stakes are high. But he's embraced the challenge head-on with a raw-knuckled, heart-bursting, head-spinning descent into Hell.
Scripted by Amores Perros screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, 21 Grams grafts explosive Latin passion onto a grey-blue North American locale. It comes as no surprise that the story began as another Mexican ensemble drama but was eventually relocated to a non-specific US city. It's certainly painted in much more grubby shades than its exhilarating predecessor, depicting lonely humanity huddled under the glowering skies of a spiritually barren El Norte rather than Mexico City's sun-drenched purgatory. Grimy and grungy, these lost souls look battered and bruised even before tragedy strikes.
The plot: an adulterous maths professor (Penn) lies close to death, awaiting a heart transplant that may just save him. His needy British wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) hopes that an emergency operation will rescue their ailing marriage, but she has yet to realise that medical science can't heal her broken heart. Meanwhile, an alcoholic ex-convict (Del Toro) is trying to rebuild his own family with a strict and unforgiving Christian fundamentalism as his unreliable crutch. But in one careless moment, the crux of the film, he destroys the life of a young mother (Watts). In the pain-wracked events that follow, retribution tramples redemption underfoot.
It's a simple enough yarn on paper, but Iñárritu keeps us in the dark for the first hour. Pinballing wildly between past and present, looping past the same events from multiple viewpoints, the deconstructed narrative may feel wilfully gimmicky at first. But this restless technique has a dramatic intensity and validity, in that all the main characters have had their lives shattered into fragments. Their senses are as scrambled as ours.
Unanimously powerful performances yoke the exploded narrative together. Watts is a revelation, screaming and sobbing herself dry with absolute conviction. Del Toro broods and slouches like prime-time Brando, a clenched ball of internalised pain and self-loathing. And Penn, a mass of quixotic, wounded, bipolar peaks and troughs, is electric. With Rodrigo Prieto's colour-drained, hand-held cinematography zooming in unflinchingly on every spittle-drenched howl, actorly vanity is out of the question. These emotions are naked, visceral and cathartic. 21 Grams positively reeks of Oscar-night glory, but for all the right reasons.
With its bleached-out desert climax, the zig-zagging camerawork and the brooding presence of Del Toro, 21 Grams has inevitably drawn comparisons with Steven Soderbergh's Traffic. But in emotional pitch, it's closer to Lars von Trier's Breaking The Waves or Todd Field's In The Bedroom, a harrowing plea for uplifting faith in a universe ruled by indifferent or vengeful gods. Iñárritu's movie could be read as a critique of religious fundamentalism, but also as a powerful argument for genuine spirituality. The title, after all, refers to the mysterious weight a body loses at the point of death—the mass, in other words, of the human soul.
Some have already dismissed 21 Grams as a trawl through the pornography of despair, a cheap holiday in someone else's misery. It's certainly strong medicine, bursting with religious iconography and portentous meditations on life's veil of tears. At times, the overwrought melodrama veers perilously close to a gritty, gut-wrenching form of supercharged soap opera.
But even so, Iñárritu and his actors strive hard to earn their profundity. If 21 Grams feels excessively tragic at times, its wrenching fatalism is leavened by tender humanity and novelistic depth. The surface may seem out of control, but it's beautifully composed beneath. Crucially, for long afterwards, the film's power and grace will stay with you.
As second albums go, this bittersweet symphony does not disappoint.
Rating: 4 / 10