My rapid re-visit of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s career (in preparation for Birdman) continues with 21 Grams – the only Iñárritu film I have already seen the entirety of. The film stars Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benecio del Toro as three deeply broken people, whose lives are tightly intertwined.
Yes, much like Amores Perros, 21 Grams is another example of “hyperlink cinema.” 21 Grams is also the nadir of non-linear storytelling. Seriously, movies don’t get less linear than this one does, and still try to convey a comprehensive narrative. It is as if Iñárritu shot the film as a standard story, then he and editor Stephen Mirrione cut up the film negative and glued it back together in random order, seemingly without rhyme or reason.
This is why I loved 21 Grams the first time I saw it. The film marked one of my earlier forays into non-mainstream cinema, and after finishing it I was really proud of the fact that I was able to keep all of the disparate storylines straight in my head. We have Paul Rivers (Penn), a professor with a terminal heart condition, whose inevitable heart transplant changes his life. Then there is Cristina Peck (Watts), a recovering addict whose life has become overwhelmed with grief. Finally, we meet Jack Jordan (del Toro), an ex-convict whose newfound dedication to Jesus is tested in a most profound way. These three characters’ lives meet and blast apart and meet again over the course of several months.
All of the parallels that Iñárritu attempts to draw between the three characters could just as easily be conveyed through straight-forward concurrent story-telling, so the question of “why” arises in reference to the non-linear editing. There is no clear answer, and perhaps Iñárritu’s reasoning is simply “because I can.” The intention is clear however, especially in a couple inspired match cuts, including one that jumps from the smoke rising from a burn on Jack’s arm to the smoke emanating from Cristina’s cigarette. The editing also serves to undermine the violently charged and emotionally manipulative meeting of our three main characters, which Iñárritu wisely cuts to throughout the film, rather than waiting to spring it on us in the third act.
That open defiance of accepted structure is really 21 Grams‘s greatest asset. It is quite the technical accomplishment, even if there is no satisfying purpose behind the editing gimmick. The real downfall is in the screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga, which comes across as both verbose and meaningless. And the dialogue isn’t doing the actors any favors – Penn and del Toro manage to rise above it, but Watts gets mired in some very unrealistic phrasing.
21 Grams is an impressive second feature, showcasing a director whose style is evolving before our eyes. The written material is interesting, but not on par with its director. Perhaps things will improve as we continue our journey down Iñárritu Lane.