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21 Grams is a wonderful movie in which casting, acting, editing, and direction all come together to tell an interesting story in a very interesting way.

The Fourth Dimension

Sean Penn has plenty of room to show his talent
Sean Penn has plenty of room to show his talent

The plot of 21 Grams is fairly straightforward, although it will take you a while to piece it together. That’s because director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu cuts between different threads and different times like a four-dimensional Star Trek alien.

Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is a new-born-again Jesus freak. His truck says “Faith” and “Jesus Christ is King.” “Jesus gave me that truck,” he says, explaining to a troubled friend that the lord is all-powerful and all-knowing. From his conversation with his friend, it’s clear that Jack knows trouble first-hand, including an intimate familiarity with the penal system,.

Paul (Sean Penn) leads a complicated life. Before we know how his life’s timeline is arranged, we see that he is at times, shot and bleeding, sick and on oxygen, living with a black-haired woman, and sleeping with Chris (Naomi Watts).

Chris leads two different lives. In one, she bakes cookies with her daughters, waiting for her husband. In another, she sleeps with Paul in a cheap hotel.

All three of these main characters are, at one time, together in a speeding car. Jack drives while Chris comforts the shot and bleeding Paul in the back seat. Finding out how they all come together is what keeps you glued to your seat, as Iñarritu takes you on his ride.

Still More Dimensions

The storytelling technique is what makes 21 Grams immediately interesting. The cross-cutting between time and space might be called pointillist filmmaking. A little dot of a scene here, another one there, and that other one over there come together. When you stand back, they form a complete picture.

But the technique is only the first thing that grabs your attention. If it were the only thing, it would not be enough to support two hours. But as we get to know the characters, they begin to demand our attention and the storytelling technique becomes less exotic and more linear.

The characters are written with grit and honesty. Jack is not some movie producer’s idea of a three-time loser. He seems to have actually been born in East L.A., where he made his mistakes, and was then captured on film by Iñarritu. Paul makes embarrassingly bad jokes when he tries to pick up Chris, saying things no self-respecting screenwriter would say. Chris has a rich back story, including a sister and father who play no role in the movie’s plot, but who nevertheless help us understand who Chris is and how she got where she is.

Each of the leading actors is outstanding. Del Toro plays a man who’s been battered by the world. He exudes strength when he has to, but when the world trips him up, he seems on the verge of tears, held back by a lifetime of practice. Watts has three exhausting scenes that showcase her talent (although maybe the fact they stand out indicate a too uneven portrayal). Penn seems the most stable of the three characters but still has plenty of room to show his talent as an actor. He may be the least in-control of his emotions and actions. He shows less restraint than Jack, even under milder circumstances, and when he hooks up with Chris, he is willing to bend over backwards for her.

If there is a problem with 21 Grams, it is only that it might be too long by a couple of minutes. I was ready for the ending about 5 minutes before Iñarritu showed it to me. On second viewing, that was no longer a problem.

After such a long, dry fall without any outstanding movies, 21 Grams is a refreshing shower of excellent, well-rounded filmmaking.