Sun December 28, 2003
"21 Grams" is the most existential film of 2003
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
"21 Grams" is the most existential film of 2003. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores Parros") has another "Memento"-like romp with time as he juxtaposes/jump cuts the lives of three people (Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benecio Del Torro) involved in a tragic accident. More importantly, he is able through the fragmented narrative to show their character motivation in sharp relief, where a traditional linear exposition makes us wait until much more time has elapsed. (Think of Orson Welles playing with his "Citizen Kane" narrative--audiences still argue about telling the story in fragments much less the outcome in the first minutes. It doesn't help that we know little about the inner Kane after all these cinematic gymnastics, but that's an argument for another time!)
Did I say "existential"? For me, the director is emphasizing the trail blazed by each character before and after the tragedy, with all the responsibility attached to their decisions and the effects on the other characters. Math professor Penn explains a theory about the interconnectedness of numbers that seems like the Kevin Bacon parlor game about degrees of separation. Existentially each character is working out his/her own fate and attaching to the fate of the other. It's a small world held together by the working of each one's fate.
The director emphasizes existential responsibility by showing a Christian congregation, notably involving Del Torro's sincerely devoted character, which espouses the "will-of-Christ" argument that stretches credulity at the film's tragedy.
Although Inarritu has no respect for the normal passage of time, his approach is soon understandable and an intellectual challenge of much less confusion than that of the acclaimed puzzle "Memento" and less socially-conscious than his own first effort, "Amores Parros," which also involves three characters and an auto accident. As invigorating as the director's storytelling technique is, the acting is its equal, for which the director must take some credit. Penn is brooding and vengeful, a bit like his character in this year's "Mystic River" but much more complicated; Naomi Watts thrives here in a convoluted character who will at times remind you of her unforgettably disturbed actress in David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," another time-warped masterpiece; Benicio Del Torro shows once again that his Oscar from "Traffic" was just the beginning of a successful career.
The bard says, "Men at some times are masters of their fates."
"21 Grams" is the evidence.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm.