Paul (Sean Penn, left) and Christina (Naomi Watts) are caught in a tragic scene in 21 Grams. (courtesy photo)

The very non-linear '21 Grams' forces viewers to work to piece the plot together

It can be difficult to judge the artistic merit of a film whose form or structure is very unusual. Unconventionality by itself doesn't make a film great; on the other hand, what looks like a "gimmick" may have a point beyond self-conscious artsiness. The question (with movies like Memento, The Limey, and for that matter Citizen Kane) is always: Does the formal trickery accomplish something beyond simply making the viewer work to understand the story?

That's a question many will ask about this second feature from Mexican sensation Alejandro González Iñárritu, which jumps back and forth in time for no immediately apparent reason. Where Iñárritu's Amores Perros juggled three stories related by one theme, 21 Grams juggles three main characters who, though they don't know it yet, are involved in one story. We see snippets (very short ones, for much of the film) of their lives and get only the slimmest clues about how each scene relates to another temporally or logically.

When we meet Benicio Del Toro's Jack Jordan, for instance, he is preaching salvation to a troubled youth with the irrational certainty of one who sinned a lot before he was saved. We know intuitively that he is an ex-con; but when later we see him entering a jail cell, are we looking at his past or his future? We have similar difficulty with Christina (Naomi Watts), the happily

Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) preaches salvation to a troubled "punk" at the community center. (courtesy photo)

middle-class mother of two: Early on, we see her in a group therapy session alluding to former drug addictions; when she is later shown snorting coke in a bathroom, has she fallen off the wagon or is this only a memory? For his part, Sean Penn's Paul is in and out of hospitals, at death's door or recovering in doctor's offices, cheating on his wife or being nursed by her.

What we are certain of is that bad things have happened and will happen to these people; and somewhere in those words "have happened and will happen" may be a good argument for the film's challenging structure. The terrible events, accidental and planned, are meant to seem inevitable and immutable, preordained by God and predictable by mathematics, unseen in each individual's past but looming there nonetheless like a black cloud on the horizon.

21 Grams
Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu; writ. Guillermo Arriaga; feat. Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo, Paul Calderon (R)
The film's editing achieves this mood. At the same time, the mental effort involved in putting the pieces together can leave a viewer unable to be moved completely by the very tragedies that cast such a long shadow. When grief comes to Christina, for example, we may still be wondering whether the family she's losing is completely happy, or if maybe she has been having an affair with Paul. We may also be wondering whether this story would hold our interest so firmly if it were told linearly; a very iffy bit of voiceover from Penn's character at the end leaves another question mark.

It is easy to be ambivalent about the structure, but hard to deny that this cast's performances would survive any number of editing-room tricks. Penn, Watts, Del Toro, and supporting player Melissa Leo do the kind of work awards were made for - even if Penn gets more screen play than his colleagues. Amores Perros left little question that Iñárritu is a serious talent, but it's the actors that give 21 Grams what weight it has. •

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