In its opening four shots, Alejandro Inarritu's high-strung '21 Grams' presents itself dizzingly yet strongly to our senses. Michael (Sean Penn)watches over Christina (Naomi Watts) while she rests, both naked and wrapped up in white sheets. He exhales his cigarette smoke with a look of exasperation. Next we see Christina's soon to be deceased husband and two daughters enjoying quality time at a diner. That quickly segues into her at a grief therapy session then segues again to Jack (Benicio Del Toro)applying his own unique brand of counseling to a prison inmate.
This all unfurls within ten minutes and captures the essence of the film as well as what it lacks. It's both sublime and puzzling but its Inarritu's defined style. His Oscar-nominated 'Babel' last year wowed with its technical structure and stark reality trying to resolve the characters ensnared in it. Both are fine films even though '21 Grams' under-reaches where 'Babel' aims loftily. Both achieve a wide yet inconclusive grasp on isolation. 'Babel' extends towards a global identity crisis while '21 Grams' simmers slowly with its own neuroitic, personal insularity.
It is a type of insularity that jars the film as Inarritu splatters so many flashback sequences that it becomes hard to place and keep track of what's happening with the plot. The only thing that isn't mentioned in the opening minutes is the car accident that changes everything. The circuitry of the film is -as a result of this-convenient and jarring because the main characters keep bumping into each other. This results in them literally searching for what they think will be salvation or at least a short-term solution for their unhappiness. They only end up however unloading their frustration and anger unto each other. It's relentless and disconcerting but fascinating to watch. This is due mainly to the brilliant acting. Naomi Watts proves to be quite the revelation with her wretched bitterness and the unrestraint of her anger. Even when asleep she looks tortured with pain. Sean Penn, with his usual nonchalant gaze, plays a man struggling with a new leash on life and the frustration it brings. Penn has mastered this type of subtlety for a long time now. Del Toro evokes as much guilt here as he did in 'Traffic'. It's an upended role that demands constant self-doubt. The film digs into some fascinating topics unflinchingly, especially human relationships. Paul's wife, Marianne (Jack's wife) and Christina deal with the changes to their husbands in a contrasting manner yet the desperation of the choices unite them as they were not the ones who made them. Paul's wife cries on cue when he sharply tells her that they've 'been a sham for a long time' but her determination to get pregnant blinds her to the reality of such a statement. Of course, Paul is telling the truth but such a blatant comment can only be met with contrary action, especially in front of others. His wife realises that she needs him even more than he needs her and it makes her simmer with resentment. Marianne is the least explored but most fascinating wife. Her status isn't as secure as the others and she has children to provide for. She literally lives for Jack and his removal from her life will leave a vacuum she is unprepared to deal with. Her resentment is well hid for this reason and like so many wives with problematic husbands, she blames everyone--even God--for his failures. Christina doesn't have the choices available to the others, just the consequences that they try to avoid desperately. We aren't shown much but Watts is such a barometer for emotion that loss seeps through any uncertainty imagined she had with her family. It's real grief too, not tempered with any self-deficiency of her character. The men suffer too. Both Michael and Jack are subjected to Christina's emotional level. One has killed her husband and the other benefits from his heart so they allow her to manipulate them against each other because the mechanism of their involvment demands it.
Inarritu exposes loss as the main interlink of the film. He presents it as essential to life and clearly delineates it in various ways. A loss of sanity for Christina that results in seclusion and substance abuse. A loss of idealism for Jack as he begins to waiver in his faith in an institutionalized way. A loss of communication between husbands and wives. The film, under-reaches when trying to explore all angles but amid Inarritu's hectic style, he still manages to keep it adequately balanced and stimulating. The religious issue impacts consistently as well. After initially boasting of God providing a vehicle for him to an inmate, Jack (a pastor) then begins to blame God for giving him the vehicle after the accident. It's displacement but it's an effect of shock too. When his wife--nicely played by Melissa Leo--comments that life must go on even without God, he doesn't take the easy way out and agree with her but he cannot eliminate her claim as quickly as he should. That delay in spiritual conviction is what comes to shape the way the film is viewed and Inarritu's execution. The film dents itself so heavily in this postulation that it never gets around to resolving itself. This makes '21 Grams' almost unbearable to watch despite its vitality and truth. It drains so much emotion away from the complexity of the characters and their losses that it ultimately uncovers an even deeper disturbing fact that ties us up all implicitly: it is not the absence of God that drives us the hardest in life, it is, more precisely, the guilt associated with such a thought.