Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu should have won his first Oscar for 21 Grams
Apart from his Oscar-winning Birdman (which was a worthy if not quite deserving winner), I’ve never really got on with the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu. They’re too glum and self-serious, multi-stranded po-faced dramas that claim to be deep and theological whilst actually being a load of old arse. Amores Perros, his debut and international breakthrough, was overlong and ultimately unfulfilling, while Babel was one of the most pretentious and irritating Oscar nominees ever. Given its incredibly unhappy story, multiple interlocking narratives, and non-linear editing, I should have hated his 2003 meditation on death and the soul, 21 Grams. Instead, I found it to be an outstanding, hugely moving film, by far the best of his career.
21 Grams concerns three seemingly unconnected people; Sean Penn’s mathematician in need of a heart transplant, Naomi Watts’ recovering junkie and housewife, and Benicio Del Toro’s Christian ex-con. After a car accident (crucially never seen on camera), all three are brought together in intriguing and not completely obvious ways. Due to the complex structure of the film, information is sprinkled throughout the film. We know Del Toro goes back to prison. We know Watts turns back to drugs. We know Penn begins to recover. Why do these things happen? Iñárritu takes his time to let us know. The structure is somewhat confusing and hard to follow, especially in the first half of the film, but it really creates a sense of mystery and tension as we wonder what will cause the downfall of these characters. It must have been an insane undertaking to edit 21 Grams, but it pays off tremendously.
Though the cinematography is often excellent and the script is very good (if a little flowery), 21 Grams is really an actor’s film. The three starring roles are very good, but there is a clear standout. Penn and Watts are terrific, but in somewhat familiar roles. Del Toro, however, is something else. As the furiously devoted Christian father trying to better himself after a spell in prison, he gives a performance of such brooding intensity and inner rage, it’s almost impossible not to sympathise with his character. It’s a complicated role, requiring him to turn his back on everyone around him and do some pretty troubling things whilst still keeping his humanity. Del Toro pulls it off absolutely perfectly, and received a deserved Oscar-nomination.
Some will hate 21 Grams as I thought I would have. It still carries an air of pretension and self-importance rife in the filmography of Iñárritu (a quality that Birdman mostly lacked), and the themes of grief and guilt make this a heavy, emotionally draining experience. Even if you find yourself confused by the non-linear narrative, stick with 21 Grams; you’ll find an excellent, complex drama, with one of the best acting performances of all time from Benicio Del Toro.
By Harry J. Ford
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