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.
What we do understand is that we're watching three souls in torment, consumed by grief, remorse and, in Christina's case, a lust for vengeance. What's also clear is that Gonzalez Inarritu isn't interested in half-measures. He's like a boxer always going for a knockout. But while "21 Grams" keeps you stunned and on the ropes, it achieves at best a TKO. Once the pieces have fallen into place, it may strike you that the peek-a-boo narrative strategy has been disguising a melodrama that, in the plain light of day, looks more than a little overwrought.
Still, this is not a movie you are likely to forget. Penn, Watts and Del Toro hurl themselves--bodily, soulfully--into their roles, and they are matched by Melissa Leo in the smaller part of Del Toro's wife, a hard-bitten woman not at all sure she likes the born-again version of her husband as much as the wild beast he was. What keeps this movie honest is the characters, each of them a mass of conflicting instincts, virtues and vices. You know Gonzalez Inarritu comes from outside Hollywood because he doesn't divide the world into heroes and villains. He may put his characters through the agonies of the damned, but he doesn't judge them. He mourns for them.