Holes in the Heart: Penn, Watts, del Toro Weigh in with '21 Grams'

Article excerpt

Byline: David Ansen

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's powerful debut film, "Amores Perros," left little doubt about the man's ferocious talent, and his first film in English, the equally intense "21 Grams," certainly confirms it. Like the three-part "Amores," his new movie (also written by Guillermo Arriaga) concerns the strangely interlocked fates of three characters, their lives brought together by a tragic accident. But just how these three people connect--Paul (Sean Penn), a professor of mathematics awaiting a heart transplant; Christina (Naomi Watts), a recovered drug addict whose new life as a wife and mother is shattered by the death of her husband and two daughters, and Jack (Benicio Del Toro), an ex-con and born-again Christian struggling to tame his demons--takes time to discover.

Gonzalez Inarritu and Arriaga have constructed their movie like a jigsaw puzzle, or the broken shards of a pot that has to be pieced together and made whole again. Chronology is tossed to the winds; the viewer has to guess whether he's in the present, past or future. You don't learn that Paul is a math teacher until deep in the film, and it forces you to re-evaluate your assumptions about him (as well as about Penn, who's not exactly the academic type). The fragmented form adds to the anxiety and dread that hangs over "21 Grams," keeping us unsettled, uncertain and alert for danger. …