(Originally posted on 11/28/03)
Like his stunning debut feature Amores Perros, director Alejandro González Iñárritu's 21 Grams concerns a group of strangers from differing socio-economic backgrounds brought together by tragedy. Shot with grainy, washed-out splendor by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, the film is a solemn case study of sorrow, tracing the fateful events that ensnare a dying mathematician, a distraught widow, and a born again ex-con in a web of suffering, regret, and salvation. 21 Grams' title refers to the weight a body loses at the moment of death, and Iñárritu's film attempts to assess the impact and magnitude of grief by intently focusing on these three irreparably scarred people. The film employs a time-hopping narrative that shrewdly reflects the characters' shattered lives, although as the story plays out, one also begins to sense that this construction may be merely a way for the director to spruce up his otherwise straightforward melodrama. Nonetheless, the film is salvaged (or, better yet, redeemed) by its remarkable lead performances. Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro conduct a master class in conveying blistering pent-up rage, and Naomi Watts is fiercely mesmerizing as a shell-shocked woman staring unblinkingly into the abyss. Iñárritu's mise-en-scène is beautifully scraggly (if occasionally monotonous), and his razor sharp editing -- such as when he cuts from a close-up of a sizzling light bulb to Watts snorting cocaine -- gives the material its brooding, slow-burn energy. The film tends to go overboard with the obvious religious symbolism -- Del Toro's Jesus truck is a bit much- - but the performances, by and large, outweigh the film's unnecessary metaphorical gunk. 21 Grams mournfully cloaks its characters in a shroud of emotional and psychological torment, and achieves its gut-wrenching apogee of misery courtesy of Watts, who incisively verbalizes that dreadful feeling one gets upon confronting an irreversible, inconsolable loss by wailing "I'm a fucking amputee."