"Films have a beginning, middle and end" Godard once quipped, "but not necessarily in that order." Luckily, audiences have become increasingly sophisticated at deciphering fractured narratives, thanks to such recent examples as Memento, The Limey and the collected works of Quentin Tarantino. And yet the form -- or should I say the lack of form? -- continues to have an exotic fascination for us, so deep is our need to begin at the beginning and end at the end. 21 Grams, Mexican director Alejandro GonzÃlez IÃÃrritu's English-language follow-up to Amores Perros, drops us into the middle of not one but three stories that, if the movie were arranged in chronological fashion, would gradually flow together, like the tributaries of a river. Instead, we're all over the place, struggling to keep our heads above water. Some will go down for the third time, but if you can take the movie on its own sink-or-swim terms, go with the flow, you may come out of it with a whole new perspective on life.
Make that life and death. Like Amores Perros, 21 Grams is haunted by the connections between the two realms -- the way someone's death can affect someone else's life, the way someone's life can affect someone else's death. Take Sean Penn's Paul, a mathematics professor who's in dire need of a heart transplant. Actually, before taking Sean Penn's Paul, ask yourself whether you want to skip the rest of this paragraph, which will outline the movie's plot. Maybe you want to just dive in, without a lifejacket. That's how the movie's meant to be seen, for better or worse. Anyway, for those who are still with me, Paul basically needs someone to die so that he can live. But when that finally happens, he's consumed by guilt, so much so that he winds up contacting the donor's wife, Cristina (Naomi Watts). Unlike Paul, Cristina's been destroyed by her husband's death, so much so that she wants to kill the man (Benicio Del Toro) who caused it. And shouldn't Paul help her with that? Doesn't he owe her his life?
That's the gist, and those of you who skipped ahead should expect to be mildly, if not wildly, confused as to what's going on until maybe halfway through the movie -- especially early on, when IÃÃrritu really tests our patience, splicing together snippets of film that appear to have been found on the cutting-room floor. The movie opens with a shot of Paul and Cristina in bed, but only when we return to that shot, over an hour later, does it mean anything to us. Likewise, a scene with a gravely ill Paul, before his operation, is quickly followed by a scene with a profusely bleeding Paul, in the back seat of a car, which is itself quickly followed by a perfectly healthy Paul. Movies are usually shot out of order, for economic reasons, and 21 Grams sometimes feels as if IÃÃrritu forgot to hire an editor. But then, just as we're about to give up, it starts to cohere. We begin to notice the connections between characters and scenes. Often, one scene will end with a line of dialogue that also applies to the next scene.
The result of this montage approach is that everything seems to be happening at the same time and all the characters seem intimately related, giving the movie a sense of tragic inevitability. And that's where Del Toro's Jack comes in. An ex-con who's sought refuge in religion, Jack wants to stay on the straight and narrow, but he brings to his faith in God the same sociopathic fervor he once brought to the committing of crimes. He's fatally flawed, and the movie sends him hurtling toward a final reckoning, courtesy of the woman whose family he accidentally killed. But are there any accidents in a tragic universe? Or is Jack guilty of some higher crime that even he is unaware of? Del Toro, looking even scuzzier than usual, digs so deep into Jack's tortured soul that we have to make sense out of the character from the soundings he sends up to the surface. "God even knows when a single hair moves on your head" Jack likes to say. That doesn't leave much room for mistakes.
As powerful as Del Toro is, Penn and Watts are even more powerful, if only because we get to know their characters a little better. Literally and figuratively, Paul is a man with a weak heart; he no longer knows why he's alive. And Penn, who scaled mountains of grief in Mystic River, spends this whole movie in the valley of the shadow of death, reining in his emotions. As for Watts, she does the mountain-climbing this time around, delivering a searing performance that, were it arranged chronologically, might affect us even more. In a movie like 21 Grams, the performances tend to get sacrificed to the greater good of showing us the cosmic interconnectedness of things. While watching the movie, trying to make sense of its shattered storyline, we're basically piecing the world back together -- a world in which life and death are wrenched from each other as if according to some higher plan. Fortunately, you don't have to get every piece in place to find the whole thing a wrenching experience.