On the one side are those who find his performance in Mystic River too big, too bravura. As a father mourning a murdered daughter and exacting his revenge on an innocent man (an old friend, no less), Penn delivered each line as if it were written in bold italics; he was as subtle as the shiv left in Tim Robbins's side. In 21 Grams, Penn can barely even breathe, much less conjure rage enough to raise his voice (save for one scene that eerily echoes the climax of Mystic River). He spends much of the film tied to an oxygen machine, which weighs him down like an anchor. As math professor Paul Rivers, he's a dying man awaiting a heart transplant that, when it comes, will not even save his life; he's doomed, and his fate lies upon him like a pillow that snuffs out his last breath.
Mystic River should provide him with the award for which he's been nominated, but passed over three times -- not only because he is spellbinding in the movie, but because his performance in 21 Grams is lost beneath the pretensions and gimmicks piled on by director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, the pair who made Amores Perros. By film's end, I was less amazed by Penn -- and Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro, each astounding in their roles as strangers damaged and bound by a single event -- than I was irritated that they slipped through my fingers. It's less a narrative than a fistful of puzzle pieces thrown at an audience forced to fit them together; the filmmakers take a bit here and insert it there, serving no purpose other than to distract and distance us, often during those moments when we genuinely want to feel for these people hurting in front of us.
They're all suffering: Cristina (Naomi Watts), because she has been left without a family; Jack (Benicio Del Toro), because he's an ex-con who has devoted his life to Christ, only to conclude that his savior has betrayed him; Paul, because he has become a burden to his wife, who wants to have his child before he dies, but does not want him. They are bound by the moment when Jack, heading home to a birthday party, drives over Cristina's family in a crosswalk. It was an accident -- he took the corner too fast, then sped away, overcome by guilt and fear -- and he is no villain. Jack, a former con whose body has become a tattooed road map of past sins and current stabs at salvation, turns himself in; he is ready to pay for his sins, against the wishes of a wife (Melissa Leo) who has sacrificed too much already in her marriage to a good man capable of bad things.
Cristina at first refuses to press charges -- it will not bring back her husband and girls, she snarls -- but over time boils into a rage and wants nothing more than to kill the man who killed her family. For this task, out of film noir, she enlists her new lover -- Paul, possessor of her husband's heart, which initially disgusts her, until at last she falls into bed and into love with Paul, for no discernible reason. (She lashes out at him after their first night together: "You've got my husband's fucking heart, you're in his fucking house, fucking his wife -- you owe it to him!") Inevitably, all three meet in the middle of a desert, where someone will pay.
But the story isn't told in linear fashion; it feels as if it's been assembled at random, as though the writer and director realized that their movie was too sentimental and overwrought to lay it out from end to end. Perhaps they worried about being accused of making an art-house version of Return to Me, in which Minnie Driver receives the heart of David Duchovny's late wife, only to fall in love with Duchovny -- proving, as Woody Allen once said, that the heart wants what the heart wants.
When first we see Paul, he is naked and in bed with Cristina; then he's in a hospital bed, tubes and needles in his body; then he's attached to his tank; then he's up again, healthy and handsome. We jump back and forth and up and down and in and out through time, as though this were some kind of mystery in which things are hinted at but never revealed. It is no mystery, but instead melodrama -- which is nothing to be ashamed of, yet this distorted narrative suggests Iñárritu and Arriaga felt otherwise. Their movie, then, is aimed at the brain, when it should have been one for the heart.