One Lives, One Dies
Main Actors: Sean Penn, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
21 Grams tackles the issue of what happens when one man lives because another dies.
Sean Penn stars as Paul, who has heart disease. We don’t know why he has heart disease at such a young age, but he does, and it is going to kill him. He needs a heart transplant. Paul is married to Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who desperately wants a child, and is growing increasingly stressed by Paul’s precarious medical situation. Along with the story of Paul, we have the story of Cristina (Naomi Watts), a former drug addict turned devoted wife and mother. Finally we have the story of Jack (Benicio Del Toro), a former bad guy turned very, very religious guy. Jack has zealously accepted Jesus in his life, though we can see his past simmering just below the surface. These three characters collide as fate turns their lives upside down and the world becomes a complicated tightrope walk full of fear, grief, regret, relief, compassion, sorrow and rage.
This sounds really good, doesn’t it? It should. The story elements are strong. The core conflict is one we can relate to while desperately hoping we never have to do so. The conflict within Paul at the prospect of benefiting from the death of another is an intriguing and promising concept. Plus, all the elements exist within the film to flesh out these premises and make them into a singularly intense, powerful drama.
Along with the excellent story fundamentals, we have absolutely amazing performances by the three lead actors. Naomi Watts more than earned her Oscar nomination here. Her character swings wildly from happy stability to rage filled anguish to numb grief to deliberate self destruction. Watts makes these transitions without a hitch, giving Cristina a powerful feel of realism – almost an uncomfortable level of realism. Benicio Del Toro plays Jack, the greasy ex-con who’s found God, so skillfully you can almost smell the week old sweat emanating from the character. His relationship with his wife and kids is every bit as strained and odd as one might expect from a man who has undergone such a radical “transformation”.
Sean Penn as Paul is equally engaging as he deals with the existential conflict of the potential organ recipient. Paul is confused by his own feelings – tremendously eager to receive a transplant, not fully understanding what he’ll be getting along with a heart. The emotional palette of this character is rich, and Penn makes the most of the inherent power in this man and his situation. There is a subtlety and nuance to Paul that is missing from Penn’s character in Mystic River – making this a character and performance far more worthy of the Oscar Penn received for that film. But I understand why he wasn’t nominated for this film. In fact, I’m rather surprised that Naomi Watts was nominated. For all its glorious attributes, in its final form this film is a mess.
The story as I outlined above sounds tremendously dramatic and powerful. And it should be. Unfortunately, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu chooses to completely destroy any semblance of cohesion and tension by egregiously overusing a storytelling gimmick. Namely, he puts the scenes out of temporal sync. Not just some of them, most of them, particularly in the first half of the film. The entire first half hour is so jumbled that the viewer has no idea what’s really going on, forget who is where and when and why they are doing what they are doing. We have Paul wheezing and clinging to life one minute, waltzing around in good health the next. Is this a flashback? A flash-forward? By the time we realize that there is no way to figure it out, the scene is over and we’re on to something, and some time, else. Jack is in prison. Is this before the story we’re currently seeing? Will it happen later? Cristina is snorting cocaine. Is she really a former drug user or is that a fabrication? Or is this a flashback to her drug using days? Or a flash-forward to later in the story?
These types of scenes come one after another, so rapid fire that we have no idea whatsoever what is the core time line of the film. In fact, there is no core time line for the film. There is so little that is actually in sequence that we are never allowed to grab onto the story at all. It’s just a series of random, rapid scenes flying by while we try desperately to catch up. It’s a gimmick. Make the story more interesting than it actually is by making the audience try to figure out what is happening to who and when. Sometimes this kind of gimmick really works. In Adaptation, there is all sorts of weird sequencing and odd gimmickry. But the whole movie is a gimmick, so much so that that is basically the point. So it’s odd and funny and entertaining. We just go with the zany flow. 21 Grams is a hardcore drama. One with a point to make and a story to tell. It isn’t a playful romp. Excessive gimmickry fails to a monumental degree. Even as the story begins to come together as the film progresses, Inarritu persists with the random non-sequential scenes. These scenes are even more irritating than those at the beginning because we have almost caught up with what is happening and are starting to feel the power of the film when we are jolted back into confusion again.
This excessive, and horrendously annoying, lack of linear sequencing is especially unfortunate here. There is so much excellent basic material that to see it butchered into an almost unrecognizable form is nearly painful. Watts, Penn and Del Toro give fabulous, intense performances, all diluted and drained of their power by the lack of cohesion. The story has the elements necessary to touch on basic human frailty and conflict, but wastes it in a morass of dubious style. To use such a deliberately obtuse style to tell this story smacks of a lack of confidence in the core plot or the performances. That lack of confidence is wholly unsubstantiated by the scenes themselves. Some of these scenes are absolutely heartbreaking, others so full of rage you can almost feel it. If we are able to tell from this confused jumble that these are incredible performances and a powerful story, imagine what we could have if the filmmakers just let the performances tell that story. In the early Christopher Nolan film Following there is a special DVD option allowing the viewer to see the story in linear sequence (Nolan also being a devotee of the out of sequence style. Except that for him it works). How I wish such an option was available here. I would really like to see these actors play out this story, instead of seeing what amounts to a random scramble of scenes that comes together far too late. The performances alone earn this film three stars, but don’t mistake that for any kind of recommendation. It’s more a simple recognition of the work done by the actors and dismantled by the filmmakers.
Is this sort of filmmaking style the mark of an “artistic” film? I suppose it depends on who you ask. If “artistic” is synonymous with “ridiculously obtuse and showing no regard for story, performances or viewer” then I guess it is. On the other hand, art doesn’t have to be deliberately inaccessible. An actor at their best is art. A story with power is art. A well structured film is art. 21 Grams is a mess.