American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"21 Grams" knows all about its story but only lets us discover it a little at a time. Well, every movie does that, but usually they tell their stories in chronological order, so we have the illusion that we're watching as the events happen to the characters. In this film everything has already happened, and it's as if God, or the director, is shuffling the deck after the game is over. Here is the question we have to answer: Is this approach better than telling the same story from beginning to end?
The film is by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the almost unreasonably talented Mexican filmmaker whose "Amores Perros" (2000) was an enormous success. That film intercut three simultaneous stories, all centering on a traffic accident. "21 Grams" has three stories and a traffic accident, but the stories move back and forth in time, so that sometimes we know more than the characters, sometimes they know more than we do.
While the film is a virtuoso accomplishment of construction and editing, the technique has its limitations. Even though modern physics tells that time does not move from the past through the present into the future, entertaining that delusion is how we make sense of our perceptions. And it is invaluable for actors, who build their characters emotionally as events take place. By fracturing his chronology, Inarritu isolates key moments in the lives of his characters, so that they have to stand alone. There is a point at which this stops being a strategy and starts being a stunt.
"21 Grams" tells such a tormenting story, however, that it just about survives its style. It would have been more powerful in chronological order, and even as a puzzle it has a deep effect. Remembering it, we dismiss the structure and recall the events as they happened to the characters, and are moved by its three sad stories of characters faced with the implacable finality of life.