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‘21 Grams’ is one of the year’s best

Penn, Watts and Del Toro star in this wrenching story of loss

Devastating in its depiction of life and death, love and loss, “21 Grams” might be the year’s most emotionally powerful film, and it’s easily one of the best.

It's a film that, given its horrific elements, could have turned soapy. But Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, in his first English-language feature, accomplishes here what he did with his first film, the Oscar-nominated (and equally tragic) “Amores Perros.”

Working again with writer Guillermo Arriaga and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, with whom he teamed up on 2001’s “Amores Perros,” he takes a potentially melodramatic event — a car accident, which also was the catalyst in his first film — and makes it raw and compelling.

Much of that has to do with the performances from Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro as the three people whose disparate lives come together in this deadly crash.

The fact that all three of their characters had a tenuous grasp on redemption when the accident happened — and that the event sends all three spiraling back to their individual versions of hell — makes the film even more wrenching.

Three lives touched by tragedy
Paul Rivers (Penn), a mathematics professor with a potentially fatal heart ailment, is awaiting a donor for a transplant. His wife, Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is eager to conceive a child with him through artificial insemination — even though she and Paul don’t have much time, and even though they’d been estranged because of his infidelity.

Cristina Peck (Watts) is a suburban wife and mother of two little girls who seems to have the perfect life, but she’s struggling to recover from a drug habit.

Jack Jordan (Del Toro) is an ex-con and born-again Christian who preaches to troubled youths even though he’s having trouble supporting his own family: his wife, Marianne (Melissa Leo), and their young son and daughter.

Powerful storytelling
Arriaga’s script, which jumps all over the place in time, reveals little details that make more sense with each retelling of the events from various angles. That’s what gives the film its texture and infuses it with suspense.

In the beginning, we see Cristina lying naked in bed as Paul sits beside her, pensively smoking a cigarette. Later — which is chronologically earlier — we see Paul in a hospital bed. Still later — and this really is later — we see Paul lying sprawled on the floor of a seedy motel room, covered in blood after a confrontation with Jack. As pieces of the puzzle snap into place, it’s impossible not to be sucked in.

Prieto’s camerawork — usually handheld, often grainy — also gives the film a visceral sense of immediacy. Having also shot recent films including “8 Mile” and “25th Hour,” the look has become his signature.

But it’s the performances that will haunt you long afterward.

Del Toro gets to rage with religious conviction, then retreat into a cocoon of cynicism and self-pity. The sadness in his eyes, the world-weariness, suits him perfectly here.

Watts already proved with “Mulholland Drive” that she could be blistering emotionally. This is an even bigger, showier role for her: She gets to flail and cry, love and seduce. At times she can be shrill, but she’s never unbelievable.

And for Penn, this represents his best work of the year — even better than his performance in “Mystic River,” in which he plays another wrecked man, and for which he’s received justified, universal praise. He ranges from charming sweetness to vengeful intensity to utter helplessness, all with absolute precision.

The film’s title refers to the weight we supposedly lose when we die. It’s the weight of a chocolate bar, Penn ruminates in a voiceover, the weight of five nickels.

Perhaps he should be focusing his attention on the weight of an Oscar.