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.

Unfortunately, though, I can’t say for sure who Sean Penn is supposed to be, or even what he does for a living. He claims to be in love with mathematics (a likely story!), and I think the word “students” went by in half a line of dialogue; but whether the character teaches in a college or devises risk-assessment models for investment firms or devotes himself to deep research of the racing form, I just don’t know. I don’t know what his British-born and conspicuously fashionable wife is doing with him in a lackluster US city, or how she got there from London. Worst of all, I can’t imagine what drove him to a crazy entanglement with Naomi Watts, other than her good looks and the conceit of the screenwriter.

And if Penn’s character seems groundless, what can I say for the setting? 21 Grams takes place in a city that enjoys picturesque fall foliage and yet is surrounded by high desert. The end credits explain the anomaly; González Iñárritu shot in Memphis and Albuquerque and then pretended they were the same. Having first conceived 21 Grams for Mexico City, he later chose to transfer the story to the middle of the United States, “middle” in this case being a stretch of 2,000 miles.

When B. Ruby Rich reviewed Amores Perros in these pages, she complained there was too little of Mexico in the movie and too much of international-style flash. I might concur and describe 21 Grams as González Iñárritu’s next step away from home, into Neverland. But, that said, why should I deny him the fun (and the torture) that Hollywood has offered so many European-born filmmakers, or demand that he (unlike Lubitsch or Wilder or Preminger) be a credit to la Raza? The major fault of 21 Grams, I think, is not ethnic or national inauthenticity but rather (to go back to Del Toro) bad faith.

As the puzzle pieces come together, as improbabilities copulate and symbols multiply, you realize that the melodrama of 21 Grams is entirely at odds with the performances and cinematography. The style, despite the obvious mixing of Albuquerque and Memphis, aims to persuade you that you’re watching a concrete world. The content, thanks in part to the Neverland setting, suggests the workings of a mysterious force, which arranges the characters’ destinies and metes out a justice no one quite understands. But how can these people be called to account, if something unknown compels them to be who they are? And why hold them responsible for the consequences of nasty events that don’t arise from their actions but rather are sprung on them? The moral story turns out to have no moral at all; the vehicle of FAITH slams into phantoms.

So the question that 21 Grams poses turns out to be different from its explicit (and self-answering) riddle, “What is the weight of a soul?” The real question is, “Can realism be reduced to nothing more than a look?”

The answer is, “Yes–and it shouldn’t be.”

I’m sorry to say I have not read Patrick O’Brian’s novels, which so many people have recommended to me; and so, like a fire-deprived critical primitive, I can’t strike their steel against the flint of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. All I can do, by way of providing a few sparks, is to talk about the erotic charge of the movie, which turns out to be powerful and strange.

This adaptation, by Peter Weir, of two of O’Brian’s books begins in 1805 off the coast of Brazil, where the crew of the H.M.S. Surprise is lying in wait for a Napoleonic privateer, the Acheron. After a disastrous first engagement, the Surprise pursues the Acheron around Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean. There, whenever Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) is not busy fighting the French, the ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), delights himself by discovering new species in the Galapagos.

All this takes months, of course, during which time the sailors neither visit a port nor serve one another’s needs on board–not in front of the camera, anyway. They are a very, very, very chaste crew of rum-sozzled roughneck Englishmen. So where, you ask, is the sex?

It’s there from the first wordless, nocturnal sequence, in which the camera follows a prowling character through the sleeping quarters below deck, where rows of hammocks, seen from below, swing from the ceiling like multiple scrotums. Perhaps the penis is Russell Crowe himself, who makes his first appearance only semi-dressed, bursting erect from the captain’s quarters through doors that part like a loosely buttoned fly. Never mind that the Surprise, like all ships, is called “she.” Weir conceives of it as a huge male body, which is literally suffused with its crew’s blood.

Before you conclude I’ve gone off the deep end, let me explain that I didn’t start out looking for sexual overtones in Master and Commander. Having seen the film on its opening weekend, after reviews had appeared, I was puzzled that so many people had called the film thrilling, breathtaking, stupendously entertaining. You might have thought these writers were describing The Adventures of Robin Hood, rather than a movie that lingers over the amputation of a young boy’s arm. Sailors are lavishly blown apart; a skull is opened and the brains probed before a fascinated crew; in one extended scene Maturin even performs surgery on himself, digging into his own guts while watching the spectacle in a mirror. Even during the longueurs, when male bodies are not being ripped into, Weir reminds you of the permeability of flesh by providing all the actors with highly visible scars.

So it came to me: The penetration of male bodies is what’s thrilling about Master and Commander. (How’s that for an S&M title?) The infliction and endurance of pain is the sex, which (seen in this way) is plentiful and very explicit. This isn’t to belittle or ignore Weir’s meticulous re-creation of nineteenth-century nautical life, or to pass over the magnificence of the seascapes and landscapes, or to neglect Crowe’s wonderfully assured performance, which is as self-amused as it is amusing. All this is splendid. I just think there are further attractions to be catalogued.

I wonder if that’s what Russell Crowe meant, when he remarked that Master and Commander is one enormously expensive art movie.