The most striking thing about 21 Grams is how well it combines style with substance – a balance that’s so, so difficult to achieve - which, I suppose, is why it has won universal favour with friends who usually have very different tastes in movies. (Yusuf was sufficiently moved to send me an SMS saying, "Dudesy, they make these types of movies in your Hollywood? I thought they only made Pretty Woman.") The question I had to ask myself when I had done marvelling at the film, having come away with the certainty that I’d seen something very special, was: is the dense, seemingly gimmicky narrative structure a case of style for style’s sake - a flashy way of indicating that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill Hollywood drama? Or is it integral to the film’s emotional impact?
Some background here for the uninitiated (slight spoiler alert): 21 Grams has a unique structure in that it follows no chronology at all, not even the reverse chronology of movies like Irreversible and Memento (it’s another matter that the structures of both those films are in fact more complicated and ambiguous than a throwaway one-line summary can suggest). Yes, in the final 20-25 minutes 21 Grams does attain something resembling a linear narrative but even then there’s no definite pattern. And for the first half-hour at least, it bombards us with rapidly edited scenes and character connections that we have to piece together for ourselves.
The three people at the heart of this complex structure are a reformed ex-convict (Benicio Del Toro) who accidentally runs over a man and his two little daughters; the wife and mother (Naomi Watts) who is cruelly bereaved by this accident; and an ailing Maths professor (Sean Penn) who gets a new lease of life when the accident victim’s heart is transplanted into him. The shifting equations between these characters and – equally importantly – the personal struggles that make them act the way they do, are the movie’s main concerns.
Back to the original question then, and I’m undecided. To an extent, I agree with James Berardinelli who says here that the ususual structure adds to the film’s dramatic impact by "hypersensitizing us to everything that occurs, and so allowing us to absorb much more than we might otherwise". But what this theory implies is that it couldn’t have had the same impact if told in a linear style, and that’s a thought which irks me. It’s too close to suggesting that 21 Grams couldn’t have been Great Cinema if it hadn’t resorted to flashiness and post-mod gimmickry, that the story couldn’t have held up on its own; that told in a straightforward style it would have become just another Hollywood melodrama, a TV-movie disease-of-the-week weepie.
But that’s probably simplistic too. A film is much more than its story; even a formulaic plot can be redeemed immeasurably by a great script and great performances, and 21 Grams has these in more than ample measure. I thought Penn was better than in his Oscar-winning performance in Mystic River. Watts and Del Toro were superb, and the supporting performances (notably the popular French actress Charlotte Gainsborough) weren’t to be sneezed at either. In the end, debates aside, what matters is that the film’s showy narrative technique doesn’t seriously impede your understanding or enjoyment of it. It didn’t for me, but be warned that this movie mustn’t be seen in fits and starts. It demands the viewer’s concentration and intelligence.