Hollywood has a problem with tragedy, in that they rarely do it well. More often than not, tragedy is mined for its most melodramatic moments; the protagonist gets cancer, wailing and moaning pitifully, before suddenly discovering an inner strength that provides for the patented uplifting denouement. In reality, tragedy is a far more introspective and lengthy process. The ramifications of tragedy are more often than not internalized, hidden from our loved ones, and quietly endured for years. In Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 21 Grams, tragedy is finally given its due, and the respect it deserves.
The story is told in a series of fragments. Flashing forward and back, the audience is given glimpses of its three main characters; Paul (Sean Penn) is on the cusp of death, waiting for his heart condition to finally claim him. Cristina (Naomi Watts) is a suburban wife with two children and a doting husband--who is soon to be scarred by an accident of epic proportions. Jack (Benicio del Toro) is an ex-jailbird turned fundamentalist Christian who can't escape the tragedies of his past which, like the repeated scenes of this film, keep returning as his future. The previously mentioned accident binds these three into an unwanted triad, sending each on a skidding path with their pasts, and sealing what seems to be a predestined fate.
Shot in a grainy, handheld style, Inarritu has constructed a mosaic of tragedy. Each scene represents a tile that's randomly dropped into the mosaic; at first confusing, and then beautiful as you see how the pieces fit together. Even better, the film unfolds like a mystery, pulling you from scene to scene, and giving awful glimpses of what's to come. While all the performances are believably raw and restrained, Sean Penn is amazing--flipping back and forth from charming seducer to an emaciated skeleton pounding at death's door.
But while the pandering nature of Hollywood tragedies normally leave me feeling insulted and depressed, Inarritu infuses his film with a sense of respect for the truly tragic hardships some people must endure. 21 Grams is about pain, the bad choices we make in its aftermath, and the path toward giving tragedy its due. It may not be "uplifting" in the Hollywood sense--but it's real.