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21 GRAMS – Probing questions of faith and redemption

Starring: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benecio Del Toro
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Rated: MA15+

THE guilt that weaves itself through the interconnected lives of three people is the basis premise for 21 Grams.

It features a woman (Naomi Watts) who survives the death of her husband and children, the man who indirectly benefits from their death (Sean Penn) and the man responsible for the accident that killed them in the first place (Benecio Del Toro).

I must admit there is a challenge to write about 21 Grams without giving too much away because the story depends heavily on a cleverly fashioned, non-linear narrative (think Memento). With an out-of-sequence arrangement of scenes, the straight-forward plot becomes an intricate series of mysteries and reveals.

It would be fair to argue this narrative gamesmanship masks the real inadequacies of an implausible, or at least, overwrought, story.

If 21 Grams began with the usual ‘once upon a time’ and made its way to ‘the end’ in normal fashion, it is difficult to imagine its premise would be as interesting or its performances as compelling. Still, it is hard to dismiss 21 Grams as a mere gimmick.

For me, the film probes interesting questions about individual faith and personal history. In the ex-convict, Jack Jordan (Del Toro), 21 Grams offers a provocative portrayal of a strictly literal approach to the Bible and its lessons for redemption.

In one chilling scene, Jordan’s son strikes his younger sister. Jordan instructs the girl to ‘turn the other cheek,’ and compels the boy to hit her again. Have I mentioned that 21 Grams is a dark film?

Sean Penn is wonderfully subdued in his portrayal of Paul Rivers, a mathematics professor struggling with his infirmities and infidelities. Penn’s performance may appear subdued only in contrast to Naomi Watts’ grieving, recovering drug addict housewife, a character who seems to be always screaming or crying or wringing her hands in unsubtle anguish.

Penn will likely receive an Academy Award nomination not for this performance but for his role in Mystic River where, to my mind, he treads dangerously close to playing a caricature of the roles upon which he has built his reputation. Thankfully, in 21 Grams, Penn moves away from that edge and reduces his risk of becoming Al Pacino.

In an irksome way, 21 Grams is like a dense piece of literary criticism that requires an intellectual effort to sort out why it really is not all that great.

While there is nothing gratuitous about the film’s treatment of violence, drugs and sex, be advised, they are a major part of the story.

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