Body And Soul
Alejandro Inarritu Delivers Life
By Cole Smithey
After his Oscar nominated first feature "Amores Perros," director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu returns to the silver screen with an ambitious English-speaking drama that sizzles with the virtuosity of a master storyteller. "21 Grams" elegantly weaves the intersecting lives of three people united by death as contemplation on the significance of human life. The 21 grams of the title is a mythic amount of weight that each human body loses in death. This physical and metaphorical touchstone serves a practical homing device for Inarritu’s shuffled plot design that seamlessly telescopes through flashbacks and forward moving action. "21 Grams" is a potent and immediate movie that raises the bar on cinematic storytelling.
Inarritu worked with his screenwriting partner from "Amores Perros" to write "21 Grams" with Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts in mind for the story’s deteriorating characters. Sean Penn is in top form as Paul Rivers a college professor awaiting a heart transplant while his wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tries to become pregnant through artificial insemination before her husband succumbs. Christina Peck (Naomi Watts) is a loving wife and mother of two little girls when a hit and run accident extracts her family from her grasp. Benicio Del Toro is Jack Jordan an ex-con who has replaced his lawless tendencies with religious faith to protect himself and his family.
We experience the characters as essential members of families whose unseen orbits pull together when Jack Jordan accidentally runs down Christina’s family with his pick-up truck while on his way home to a small celebration with his family and friends. Jack has recently been fired from his job at a country club for his tattoos, which symbolically include a heart that decorates his neck. Jack is the most morally empathetic character in the film because he has fallen the farthest and yet strives with every nerve in his body to maintain his sobriety and sanity in the face of the gloom and temptation that surrounds him.
The death of Christina’s husband Michael (Danny Huston) provides Paul (Penn) with the very heart that is transplanted into his chest and allows him to go on living. Paul becomes the emotional catalyst of the story because he refuses to accept the concealment of his donor’s identity and takes it upon himself to hire a private detective to disclose the source of his lifesaving heart. Paul’s burden is curiosity, while Christina’s hardship is the loss of her family. But it’s from Jack’s sense of guilt and responsibility that the story reveals its thematic soul and transcends Paul’s inquisitiveness and Christina’s sense of revenge.
The striking look of "21 Grams" comes from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who gave similar grit and saturated color to "Amores Perros." Prieto again uses a hand-held camera to interact with the story as a coordinated invisible member of the onscreen action. The realism and percolating thematic bubbles that pop from the unfolding narrative puzzle come directly from Prieto’s balanced visual sensibilities. But the rawness of Inarritu’s film comes from the passionate milieu that the film’s ensemble connects with. The vibe is closest to the one that writer/director Joe Carnahan presented with his recent tour de force "Narc." The disjointed plotting of "21 Grams" is the film’s most polished device and wraps the story in circling layers that are then punctured by the slipping intentions of its characters.
Some critics have complained about the bravura narrative splicing of "21 Grams" as being "difficult to follow." But they miss the validity of the tact’s overall effect because they are so concerned with "following" the story. This is a daring movie that deals with loss of family, pride, dignity, faith, and ultimately a person’s very soul. The value of a human life is an inestimable quantity that can only be inferred by the way that people treat one another. "21 Grams" commands a running discourse that runs as a constant thematic thread through all of humanity. The movie delivers life as a floating mysterious entity that we all share. It’s very few films that achieve anything remotely close.
Rated R. 125 mins. (A-) (Four Stars)