A few years ago, after a spate of movies in which children died so that their parents could evolve as human beings (or else turn into bloodthirsty avengers), I decided it was time to take a stand. If you're going to kill children in a movie, I thundered, you'd better have something profound to say about the human condition, because it doesn't take insight or artistry to shake up an audience with dead kids. It just takes a certain kind of ruthlessness.
Well, it seems more thundering is in order, because dead children are splattered all over our screens this holiday season. I'll give a pass to Jim Sheridan's In America, which is a scrupulous examination of a family's grief, and in which the little boy in question expires before the film begins. But 21 Grams and The Missing use the deaths of children to add spurious moral weight to scenarios that are, respectively, trite and barbaric.
Having butchered grown-ups and dogs in his debut feature, Amores Perros, the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu now turns his attention to little girls, whose senseless deaths (along with that of their father) form the centerpiece of 21 Grams (Focus Features). A grueling character study with a pretzeled syntax, it's supposed to make you ponder the question of predestination. Are our fates ordained? You might think so from the first 15 minutes, which—like the auto accident that begins Amores Perros—offer a glimpse of three disparate people thrown together under bloody, agonized circumstances.
They are Sean Penn as some sort of mathematician with a fatally diseased ticker, Benicio Del Toro as a born-again ex-con, and Naomi Watts as the ex- and future-drug-addict mom of two run-over kids. From the opening, we know that Penn will be sleeping with a bedraggled Watts, and that he and Del Toro will have some sort of face-off that leaves them both covered in blood. But how will their fates become linked? The movie leaps backward, then forward, then sideways, then does a back-flip, then executes a handstand followed by a half-twist double-gainer. The Russian-judge film critics have been impressed, but I found myself hopelessly confused: Penn goes under the knife twice, Del Toro is in prison twice, and Watts goes for long swims before and after her children die. Is the strategy to make you work so hard to determine where you are in the timeline that you overlook what a dreary and conventional little soap opera this is? Iñárritu keeps returning to the dad and his two little girls as they hurry down the sidewalk toward their fate, circling closer and closer to the horrifying moment—an art-house sicko's striptease.
The director has been acclaimed for the film's "startling" intimacy, which looks to me like sticking his camera in the faces of his great actors and commanding them to suffer. They do, with all their hearts; but the only performance that caught me off guard was by Melissa Leo as the wife and mother who rides to the scene of the accident to view her husband's hit-and-run handiwork, and who argues furiously that to turn himself in would be to injure his own family (a wrong but recognizably human position).
Watts was so good in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001) that you never caught her acting, even when the performance changed gears and she pulled the rug out from under you; consequently, she was overlooked for major awards. This time she won't be, but the performance—brave as it is—has a fraction of the wit and imagination of the one that made her a star. Del Toro uses his bearish physique and echo-chamber voice to create a man with so many layers—so many inner checks and balances—that his tragic disorientation is entirely credible. But you don't really like or understand him. Penn has to behave like an idiot: He follows the grieving Watts around and sweetly woos her, all the while sitting on a ticking time-bomb of a secret. As usual with Penn, I don't completely buy the character, but I completely buy that he has brilliantly internalized something. He goes to some weird psychological places, our Sean.
21 Grams is worthy of contempt; The Missing (Columbia Pictures) is fathoms beneath it. Directed by Ron Howard, it's a schlock melodrama dolled up in arty frontier vestments. Salvatore Totino is the cinematographer, and his wintry, deep-focus vistas are some are the starkest I've ever seen, but for all its gravitas the movie is as cheaply plotted as any Grade C '40s Western serial. No, that's unfair to those serials, which didn't resort to shots of a dying baby—and then its corpse—to get you drooling for the bad guys' blood.
Cate Blanchett plays a depressed frontier doctor who brings the same relish to her carnal relations with ranch-hand Aaron Eckhart that she does to pulling the lone diseased tooth from an old Indian woman. Evan Rachel Wood plays her headstrong older daughter, who wants to do the 1885 equivalent of shopping on Melrose Avenue: go to the county fair to hear her voice coming out of one of those newfangled gramophone thingies like they have in Cleveland. On her way, some very nasty Indians kidnap her to sell to Mexicans and leave Eckhart roasting over an open fire. (Scalped on camera in Nurse Betty , Eckhart now qualifies as modern cinema's unluckiest paleface.) Fortunately, Blanchett turns out to be half Apache (which explains those Asian princess eyes and cheekbones), and her dad * (Tommy Lee Jones) just happens to have wandered into her life—after an absence of decades—the day before. Although she loathes him, she enlists his aid in a Searchers-style quest for the not-yet-deflowered virgin. She also lets her 10-year-old girl come along, because, well, you're never too young to be exposed to sadistic homicidal white-slavers.
Ron Howard works very hard to prove that he has left Opie behind, but I think he should have listened to Sheriff Andy and steered clear of guns. The battle scenes are muscular, bloody, and totally incoherent. The rest of The Missing is shot like a high-toned monster movie and features a horrifying witch doctor (aka "brujo") who looks like Osama Bin Laden splashed with acid. This being a big studio production, the film is careful to balance the evil-alien-psycho-demon Indians with decent-enough-to-smoke-a-pipe-with Indians.
The only thing even remotely interesting in The Missing is Jones' performance, which is a perfect blend of integrity, insolence, and insanity. What is he doing? The character has had himself a lot of women but never stuck around to raise the kids—now he's trying to make amends. A whorish actor would have really played up the grief over all those lost years of bonding with his kids and given us a remorseful, tortured soul. But Jones must have decided that asshole he has been and an asshole he will be. He knocks out all the low notes in his voice and sounds like Bill Clinton at his most dodgy, and gazes at his daughter with the sad eyes of a man who just can't be bothered to emote. Jones doesn't rise above the material, but he doesn't sink with it, either. Given all these butchered children, I envy the man his indifference.
Correction, Dec. 1, 2003:Thanks to those readers who've corrected me: In The Missing, Tommy Lee Jones is not an Apache, he merely lives with and like the Apaches. He is a Dances With Wolves kind of Apache. This is a peculiar thread in the film, since his daughter (Cate Blanchett) copes with his presence as a reminder of a hidden shame, and since Jones' reasons for embracing the Apache "lifestyle" remain as veiled as the rest of his character. I still think a bit of Apache blood would be a great explanation for Blanchett's otherworldly beauty. Return to the corrected sentence.