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21 grams

A strong story with a familiar telling, 21 Grams dips into the pockets of numerous recent drug/medical trauma/Spanish drama/suspense movies to deliver a powerful barrage of questions on the worthiness, value, and rate of exchange of life.

Benicio Del Toro and Sean Penn are our protagonists Jack "Wolf" Jordan and Paul Rivers, both assholes (not that it's easy to imagine Penn as playing anything but), thrown together gradually and chaotically through a series of unfortunate events revolving around innocent, unemployed Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts). We're led through the story in a grainy, tinted, piecemeal fashion, and indeed the telling of the events is in itself a large component of the movie. Borrowing heavily from the Thomas Pynchon/Memento school of chaotic reconstruction, the movie flickers together like a fast jigsaw puzzle, and at times the film is better for this and at times it's worse. When you tell something in jumbled time, the payoffs and discoveries had better be good - shocking even - to justify the device. In 21 Grams' case, it's never a surprise that yes, all the characters are interconnected in tragic and ironic ways, and yes, everyone will come together in the final cataclysmic scene. But for all the contrivances Inarritu deploys, he still weaves a taut tapestry, and it's the actors, rather than the storyline, that holds it together.

21 Grams is in many ways a chronicle of testing the limits of difficult people in even more difficult situations. Its all-too-human characters turn to the obvious solutions - faith, anger, desperation, stalking, and taking it out on other people -before realizing none of the solutions work, have ever worked, or at the proverbial end of the day, even matter. In Rivers we see the futility of heroism and the legacy of survivor guilt; his course runs a strange parallel with Jordan's, as both men endure the unthinkable and return to rebuild, finding it an almost laughable pursuit. As each of them orient themselves around their icons of redemption - for Jordan it's Jesus, for Rivers it's the widowed Peck - they sublimate the realities of their tragedies and scatter the pieces of their lives rather than attempt to put them back together. The balance of fate versus faith becomes too difficult for either of them to bear, and it is only through poignant, careful portrayals by Watts, Penn and Del Toro that we see the emotional depth in each character that spares them from an entirely nihilistic end.

The film is somewhat too easy, too pithy at times - the titular soliloquy comes to mind - but by and large the themes of frustration, unworthiness, and even greed are universally resonant. In some way, each member of the triangle wants something at the expense of another's life, and each one of them must struggle with how to reconcile this - with trying to be a good victim, with trying to be a good Christian, or simply with one's own otherwise pervasive apathy. "Life goes on," Christina's father tries to tell her, and the film illustrates exactly how it goes on. For Christina it goes on though she cannot imagine it. For Jordan it goes on though he cannot salvage it. And for Rivers, as for many people, it goes on despite himself.

Inarritu embellishes his tragic heroes skillfully with perfect blasts of noise and silence, and delicious lingering stills that pierce through a beautifully shot, perfectly appropriate desolate landscape (an anonymous combination of Memphis and New Mexico). While 21 Grams isn't without its holes and crutches, it glides by on the strength of finely outlined humanity.


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