A bleak, rather obvious melodrama disguised by a tricksy, time-splicing structure, 21 Grams flits between three characters whose lives are entwined by tragedy. Benicio Del Toro is terrific as a newly Christian ex-con; Naomi Watts devastatingly devastated as a grieving mother; Sean Penn more subtle but less involving than in the similarly self-important Mystic River. The English-lingo debut of Amores Perros director Alejandro González Iñárritu, this shares the technical excellence of his Mexican so-called masterpiece, but is another triumph of style over story.
"WATTS IS A BRILLIANT ACTRESS"
The editing will flumox some viewers, as Iñárritu drifts back and forth through time, dropping in on the characters at different stages of their stories. Thus, one moment we're watching Del Toro in jail, the next he's talking about Jesus at a local church; Watts and Penn appear to be lovers, then we jump back - or forward? - in time, showing him as a very sick man, sneaking a smoke away from the eyes of his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The order of these events is unclear, gradually revealing itself as the film unspools.
The attentive will likely enjoy piecing the puzzle together, and in terms of filmmaking craft 21 Grams is quite an accomplishment. Watts is a wonderful actress and Del Toro delves deeply into a real cinematic rarity - a complex, sincere religious character whose beliefs are not patronised or ridiculed. But once you click where everyone fits, the film is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Clever as it is, the structure distances the viewer from the story.
The title refers to "the weight we lose when we die. The weight of five nickels, of a hummingbird, of a chocolate bar - and perhaps also of a human soul." A weighty issue indeed, but while mulling over faith, fate, Death, and human resilience, Iñárritu's picture takes a long time getting nowhere very special, offering little in the way of insight or much emotion, despite the superb acting. There is much to admire here, but ultimately, ironically, 21 Grams is somewhat soulless.