To the fleet of symbolic vehicles currently cruising the screen–their number includes the “Pussy Wagon” that Uma Thurman (in Kill Bill) coldly claims as her own–we may now add Benicio Del Toro’s pickup in 21 Grams. As Jack, an incompetent petty criminal who has found religion, Del Toro wins the truck in a contest and paints the message “FAITH Jesus Saves” across its tailgate, perhaps out of pride as much as a spirit of Christian witness. “Jesus gave me that truck,” he insists fiercely, early in the film, to someone whose belief is less aggressive than his own. If so, then Jesus must have had a dark purpose in handing over the keys. 21 Grams is the story of how Jack’s Salvation-mobile wipes out three lives and leads to the protracted ruination of three more.
As directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros) from a screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga, 21 Grams makes a picture-puzzle out of this moral tale, teasing you with a scrambled chronology. The film begins by offering discontinuous glimpses of three unconnected characters, then flashes a preview of the climactic moment, when all three somehow come together in a bloody motel room. You understand that the worst has already happened. The trick is to figure out when, where and why the primal scene plays out, and perhaps to guess whether Jesus saves any of these people.
I can see why many viewers have found this to be a puzzle worth solving. Piece together the theme, and you see that 21 Grams is about people who get the second chance we all want but would most likely flub. Jack, who has been released from jail, at first makes a go of the straight life but then drives his new faith smack into disaster. Cristina (Naomi Watts) overcomes a drug habit and achieves domestic happiness; but later, under a burden of grief, she crumples catastrophically. Most dramatic, or melodramatic, of the three characters is Paul (Sean Penn), who literally gets a new life, through a heart transplant operation, yet goes on with his killing old ways.
As you might expect with such a high-powered cast, the characters’ opportunities are not just blown but dynamited. Watts brings to her role the same gift for reckless, hyperventilating distress that she used in Mulholland Drive, the difference being that here she isn’t playing everything between quotation marks. Del Toro, master of the funky pause, throws the audience off balance with every gesture and utterance, like a boxer toying furiously with an opponent. (He hasn’t had a role this rich since Traffic.) The part that’s trickiest (for reasons I’ll soon sketch out) goes to Penn, who brilliantly turns the character’s opacity to his advantage. He makes Paul not just duplicitous but aloof, as if this man were already observing himself from beyond.
These performances are all the more explosive for González Iñárritu’s virtuoso direction and for the work of his extraordinary cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto. Every once in a while, Prieto manipulates the colors to give a sense of something otherworldly hovering over these characters–for example, in an image of black birds flying in a dense flock across blue and maroon clouds. For the most part, though, the camera stares with scrupulous meanness at scenes that are lit to emphasize the grungy detail, or probes (with handheld urgency) into the movement of the actors’ faces. There’s a close-up of Paul’s wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg), positioned toward the left of the screen, that’s shot through a lens that merges her a little with the background, into the background, so that at a moment of speechless exasperation she seems physically near but psychologically distant. It’s an image worthy of Kieslowski. I could say the same for many of the shots in 21 Grams.