Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Guillermo Arriaga
Starring: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Three individuals wrapped up in a game of cause and effect with actions that shatter their lives and bring them hope. Despite using a formula utilized in previous films, this go-around by Alejandro González Iñárritu resorts in an ineffective story.
Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) tries to recover after spending time in jail and finds a new religious zeal. Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) gets a chance at a new life with her husband and children after fighting off substance abuse, while Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) tries to search for a much-needed heart transplant. Their paths all meet at a crossroads that tests their emotional resolve.
This style of storytelling is not new to writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who told similar stories with Babel and Amores Perros with the latter being the best of them all. Iñárritu has found pleasure in telling these nonlinear interconnected stories because when the whole plan unfolds, a strong cathartic conclusion reveals all the threads. The Mexican director has become proficient at it but each film has delivered diminishing returns ever since Amores Perros. Regardless, with 21 Grams, he applies a gritty take without any of the necessary edge.
Each of these characters has past sins they must atone for, as they all lead a life in recovery. For Jack, it came down to drugs and spending time in jail. Cristina had drugs as well and Paul had not always been the best husband to his wife. In order to cope with their past issues, they resort to religion and swimming for ways to let off steam and seek guidance. These methods do not assist for long, as their lives come crashing down on them once they collide with each other and puts an end to their attempt at normalcy. That causes them to return to the ills that initially brought them to rock bottom.
While the narrative did not have the strength of Iñárritu’s other works, this film had some top-notch acting. Benicio Del Toro delivers the best of the performances as someone trying to find his actual meaning in life. After being released from jail, he finds religion and believes that God brings him a purpose. Then the inciting incident happens and he gets lost in a daze of being lost and confused as to what God wants from him. It’s a heartbreaking performance by Del Toro and he really brings the heft to a film that needs it. Naomi Watts also brought plenty to the table, as a character that loses the most during the runtime of the film. Someone who battled through drug addiction and has been able to put her life together and it all goes away in the worst possible way. Such a grueling performance that requires much from her and she delivers. Sean Penn also had an impressive performance as the one with the least to atone for his past. He becomes more of a character of circumstance compared to the collision course that Jack and Cristina seem to be on. The actors came to play in this film, which stand as its best element.
Aesthetically, the cinematography focuses on making each scene feel gritty and dirty. Especially the scenes the three main characters share. The color palettes create a grainy experience and puts the audience in the crummy situation these characters find themselves in. In its conception, the story should have more resonance than it actually ends up having. A story of this much pain and resilience should be better. Iñárritu stands as one of my favorite contemporary directors but this film lacks the emotional potency that his other interconnected films inherently possess. A decent effort but unsuccessful nonetheless.