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dir. Alejandro González IZárritu, U.S., Focus Features
21 Grams breathes circularity; life and death coexist within an emotional continuum where excess and guilt, desire and addiction, loss and despair flow in a constant achronological zigzag. It’s a world where things occasionally fit perfectly, but nothing ever lasts. Its characters collapse inside a chaotic emotional twister in which their every decision opens up a “Pandora’s box”; they must face the despairing realization that those less complicated bygone days cannot return. The drums of vengeance grow louder, guns are sold, loaded and fired. Death waits around the corner, in the offscreen space of a barren mise-en-scene in which bodies remain frozen, almost inanimate, not knowing how to move, where to go next.
Cut. Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) screams, breathing heavily, swallowing a glass of whiskey while staring at her dead daughter’s shoes. Cut. Jack Jordan’s (Benicio del Toro) fanatic grimace bears the burden of a new-grown Christian fanatacism; he pushes his wife against a wall; the Lord is still with him. Cut. Paul River (Sean Penn) agonizes, wrapped inside claustrophobic white hospital sheets, mulling over the certainty of a death that is already attached to the life he has lived. Cut. Now Cristina and Paul are together, or perhaps it’s Jack and Paul. Or the three of them—it’s hard to see in the darkened motel room. Screams, laughter, bullets, moans, blood, red underwear, a black painted face. They move, detour, intersect, penetrating each other’s bodies and psyches, shattering each other’s lives.... All of a sudden, only the capricious law of ruthless contingency matters. Two kids and a father, playfully walking along the sidewalk of a nameless anywhere-in-America street, a pick-up truck driven under the “Sign of God” passes by soon after, a still camera observes them and lets them go away, too frightened (or perhaps detached) to follow them, aware that the upcoming screech of tires carries the unmistakable smell of death. Now it’s all about three corpses, a hit-and-run driver, a heart available for transplant , a destroyed ex-alcoholic mother and wife and how they all fail to accept the mishap that has dreadfully linked them. Soon, they are reunited in a motel room where blood and hatred lead the way into rebirth and redemption. Cut.
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Like Alejandro González IZárritu’s first feature film, Amores Perros, 21 Grams explores the on-the-verge emotional condition of a group of individuals whose day-to-day lives have been instantaneously shred to pieces by the fatal consequences of a traffic accident. However, while the former is structured through linear accounts of three individual episodes—woven together via the very moment of the car crash—the latter is organized through a series of short, temporally dislocated glimpses at the lives of its three main characters. The story is built up through successive emotional crescendos, immediately downplayed by abrupt narrative shifts. As their three separate existences become one, 21 Grams stubbornly takes us back in time, repeatedly. As a consequence, the viewers’ (mis)conceptions of Penn, Del Toro, and Watts’s characters are continuously reshuffled by the addition of new insights on their past—who they were before IT happened—undermining any clear-cut moral judgment. IZárritu’s anti-climatic cut-up narrative works against the spectator’s easy emotional investment in a story that rather than unfolding, lurches and pulls back. This erotics of identification invariably frustrates the viewers’ anticipations and appeals instead to their puzzle-solving abilities. It’s up to the viewer to weave together the many threads the story offers. When, in the end, the film points directly to a specific—and arguably predictable—direction, the challenge 21 Grams has carefully set up becomes a formal exercise of narrative pyrotechnics as beautifully composed as it is disappointingly patronizing.
Shot almost entirely using handheld camera and a variety of film stocks that reflect each of the main three characters’ emotional states (later unified by a bleach-bypass process employed in the development of the film’s negative), 21 Grams, in IZárritu’s own words, aims at capturing the “real.” The camerawork, color scheme, and film stock (more or less grainy) were chosen to capture the immediacy of the characters’ progression toward final psychological turmoil. Within its quick-paced editing scheme and constant temporal dislocations, the visual palette’s nuances might lamentably remain underappreciated. Since the audience needs to re-compose the story through the continuous bits and pieces that the narrative offers, they must anchor their experiential encounter with the film in the capricious details their short memory apprehends. Once making sense is achieved, it might be too late to appreciate the blue-coded backgrounds that accompany Penn’s character from the beginning of the story. 21 Grams’ realism, rather than being tied to a particular aesthetic or narrative device, is articulated through the looming certainty that things will not work out for any of the characters. We know it’s bound to be that way, and we enjoy the realization of such “perverted” anticipation. Cinematic realism, if existent, is invariably rooted in the viewer’s emotional response in experiencing a fictional universe we have already identified as ideologically and formally constructed. —VICENTE RODRIGUEZ-ORTEGA
21 Grams opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 21.