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It’s too early to call it a crowning work of a career — this is only his second film — but it may well be the crowning work of this year.
I think not. The film’s premise might have made a deeply powerful piece of art. Casting too, promised many wonderful performances from the likes of Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro.
In the film, a woman’s family is wiped out by a hit and run driver. Her dead husband’s heart is given to a dying heart patient who is drawn to her because of her tie to the heart donor. But the execution of the concept in this film is not successful for me.
Let’s talk about tone: this film is GRIM, GRIM, GRIM. I have nothing against ‘grim’ in films. Some of the greatest films are fundamentally grim. But this one is unrelentingly grim. There isn’t a single character major or minor for whom I felt any sympathy.
Benicio Del Toro
Let’s take a single scene featuring Benicio del Toro’s ravaged ex-con turned angry Christian. Sitting at the dinner table, del Toro’s son smacks his sister. When she tries to hit her brother back, del Toro tells her menacingly that she must learn to turn the other cheek when someone hits her. He jumps across the table and holds his daughter’s face and screams at his son to hit her. When the petrified boy refuses, del Toro bellows at him to hit her. He finally does. But then both daughter and son collapse in tears and his wife leaves the table, disgusted to console them. Nice fellow, don’t you think?
Now, let’s talk about implausible plot developments. Just after the funeral, the widow declares that she doesn’t even have a desire to press charges against the hit and run driver saying: “What would it prove?” Yet after meeting and falling in love with Sean Penn’s character, she suddenly develops a burning, unquenchable thirst for revenge: “We’ve got to kill him,” she says. A little discongruity you say? Sure is.
Sean Penn in 21 Grams
And in the climactic scene in which Sean Penn, del Toro and Naomi Watt each struggle with a loaded gun, Penn’s character decides to end the fight by shooting himself in the heart. If I killed myself in the middle of every argument I’ve ever wanted to stop, I’d have at least nine lives if not more.
Finally (and this to me was one of the more annoying features of the film), the editing. It appears the film editor and director wanted to jumble up the scenes so that you couldn’t tell when the action took place. Is this Sean Penn scene after the heart transplant or before? Is this Naomi Watt scene before her family’s death or after? Unlike Memento, in which the action is shown in reverse chronological order, the jumbled chronology in 21 Grams seems willful and perverse, as if it were thrown into the film to throw the viewer’s ‘center of balance’ off.
We left the theater feeling very unsatisfied.