21 Grams

21 Grams (2003)

21 Grams first published by Movie Gazette

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu garnered well-deserved international recognition for both himself and the renascent Mexican film industry with his debut Amores Perros (2000), an ambitious tale of three different lives linked by a catastrophic car accident, and by a whole lot of dogs. His second feature, 21 Grams, also features three characters brought together by a car accident, but when, near the film’s beginning, a young boy asks his mother if he can have a pet, only to be told ‘No dogs!’, it becomes clear that this is to be no mere English-language remix of the first film.

Where Amores Perros consisted of three stories which shared a few overlapping elements and points of intersection, but were told strictly one after the other, in 21 Grams, Iñárritu interweaves the multiple strands of his story into a tight knot and leaves the viewer with the task of picking it apart. The different scenes which make up the film have been edited together with no concessions whatsoever made to the conventional continuities of chronology or location, creating a cinematic jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces are out of place, and the big picture emerges only in the viewer’s head. This highly fragmentary structure, without precedent in a mainstream release, places considerable interpretative demands on the cinemagoer, especially in the film’s first half hour where it is next to impossible to see how, or even whether, the disparate episodes and characters are supposed to fit together.

The reward, however, comes both in the satisfaction of gradually solving a thorny enigma, and in the strange spectacle of extreme human emotions, crises and conflicts dissected from their context and transplanted into new combinations – effects which would be ruined by any attempt here to synopsise the underlying plot or the ensemble of characters that drives it. Suffice it to say that by the end, almost everything becomes clear, but by that point the ‘divine’ perspective afforded the viewer, beyond space and time, has made the plot itself (which is in the final analysis little more than a telenovela melodrama) seem trivial compared to the more important questions which 21 Grams poses about life, death, identity, guilt, transcendence and rebirth.

If a classic is defined as a film that demands to be seen again and again, then 21 Grams must be one – for even if you see it just once, you will inevitably find yourself playing it backwards and forwards in your head many times thereafter. Its boldly atomised narrative, its labyrinthine circularity and its no-nonsense performances make 21 Grams a follow-up to Amores Perros that is well worth the weight.

strap: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams is a knottily remixed ensemble narrative whose profound themes outweigh its melodramatic plotting

Anton Bitel