Tuesday, March 10, 2009

21 Grams

Imagine, for a moment, that you've just written a script. It's going to be made into a movie starring Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro and Naomi Watts. That's a pretty exciting proposition, but on the way to the script meeting, you drop it and all the papers are scattered around. Do you, a) carefully reconstruct the script in the proper running order, maintaining some sort of sensible continuity, or b) just shove it all together not paying too much mind to how it's all fitting together, hoping that you can pass it off as some sort of innovative non-linear story.

If you selected b, congratulations, you're Guillermo Arriaga, and that script got you nominated for a bunch of awards.

I'm not being fair, but I couldn't help but feel that the movie begins in a disorganized jumble. Scenes happen without any clear indication of how they relate to the other scenes, or how they could possibly fit into a greater narrative framework. As soon as you get a glimmer of what's going on, the scene changes and there's no clear indication how you got where you are. Sean Penn flits randomly between healthy and sick, Naomi Watts and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Benicio del Toro is in jail, and then not in jail, and then he's got a different haircut. There is no indication of where the present is, and the discordant jumble constantly keeps you guessing at the relation of all the characters.

So, you might expect that I'd hate it. I didn't like the unnecessary non-linearity of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, for example. I've made it clear that gimmickry doesn't fly with me if I don't think it serves the story. Given just how random the scene order seems at first, you might expect me to hate this movie almost at principle. Here's the thing though, this is a gimmick that actually works, it's not just there to show off how clever the filmmakers are.

The important thing is that since you don't know the chronology, you don't know how anyone knows each other, so you begin to wonder how everyone relates to each other. It's a mystery whether or not Naomi Watts and Sean Penn know each other in the present, or the future, and their relationship calls into question the source of his illness. Some scenes make you wonder if he's part of the reason Benicio del Toro went to jail and found Jesus. Or, it makes you wonder if del Toro will soon lose Jesus. It makes a mystery out of a story which might not work very well if it was told in a conventional manner. In short, the gimmick makes the film a lot more interesting than it would be otherwise.

I'm deliberately avoiding details of the story, I can see the gimmick getting old on repeat viewings when you know what's going to happen. But if that's the case, then just wait until the second hour, when the film begins to gel into something a bit more conventionally told, but no less intriguing. All of the characters are mired in internal conflicts, and it becomes about the external conflicts and problems those lead to. It's a big shared existential crisis, mostly stemming from a moment that is never on screen but is always present once you learn of it.

I could see this being off putting at first. It doesn't start to make sense for a while, and the deliberately lo-fi filming style with high grain and constant handheld camerawork doesn't lend itself to accessibility. Stick with it, and you'll find yourself hooked, curious about how the apparent mess will eventually resolve itself. Once you're hooked, you'll discover a great story told in a very compelling way, and I'm not sure about you, but that's what I watch movies for.

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