Director : Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenplay : Guillermo Arriaga (story by Guillermo Arriaga in collaboration with Alejandro González Iñárritu)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Sean Penn (Paul Rivers), Naomi Watts (Cristina Peck), Benicio Del Toro (Jack Jordan), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Mary Rivers), Melissa Leo (Marianne Jordan), Clea DuVall (Claudia), Danny Huston (Michael), Carly Nahon (Cathy), Claire Pakis (Laura)
Like his stunning feature debut, 2000’s Amores perros, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s English-language debut, 21 Grams, brings together the lives of a disparate group of people after a car accident. Again written by Guillermo Arriaga, some might see 21 Grams as a disappointing follow-up, considering how closely it mirrors its predecessor in terms of both narrative and theme.
Yet, 21 Grams is so boldly made and so provocatively intriguing, that it’s impossible to dismiss. It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again that González Iñárritu is clearly a born filmmaker, one who knows how to marry sound, imagery, and narrative in consistently interesting ways (in the film’s most harrowing and violent scene, he makes the startling choice to drop out all the sound, which gives it a mythic resonance). He clearly borrows heavily from his predecessors, most notably Quentin Tarantino, but he makes it all his own with the sheer vigor of his chutzpah.
21 Grams is a deeply spiritual film, dealing as it does with the core issues of life and death and the role God plays in them. The “21 grams” of the title refer to the belief that, when anyone dies, his or her body immediately loses 21 grams of weight (approximately the same as a stack of five nickels), which would seem to suggest that this is the weight of the human soul. Throughout the film, we are forced to question and ponder the weight of the human soul, not literally, but figuratively. The title’s metaphorical connection is in terms of weight as significance: What is a human life worth?
The three main characters come from different backgrounds, but all of them share in heartbreak and grief. Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a college mathematics professor who is wracked with guilt after having had a heart transplant that saved his life. He is desperate to know where his heart came from, because he wants to know who he is now, despite the doctor’s admonition that it’s “his heart” now. Paul eventually becomes involved with Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts), a former drug addict turned soccer mom whose entire family is destroyed in an instant. At fault is a former gangbanger named Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro), who has since found religion, but learns nonetheless that getting right with God doesn’t always mean a steady and secure future. The question of whether God is wrathful, indifferent, or inexplicable is a crucial question left for the audience to ponder.
The performances are excellent across the board. Penn embodies much of the same pent-up, existential despair that made his role in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River so riveting. He plays a man whose body is weak and constantly threatening to die on him, but whose soul continues to thrive, even in the starkest turmoil. Naomi Watts balances her character’s addiction-fraught hysteria with a steely inwardness that is difficult to crack. There are times when she seems so despondent that you can’t imagine a future for her, and when she declares at one point what she and Paul must do to avenge her loss, it sends chills down your spine because it strikes so clearly at the violence of which even the most ordinary of people are capable.
The film’s best performance, though, is Benicio Del Toro’s turn as Jack, a man who tries to set his life straight through religious redemption, but finds that demons continue to rattle his soul. Jack was clearly a man of violence before his salvation because it slips out in the most disturbing of ways, particularly toward his children, who he teaches as Jesus did to turn the other cheek when hit by hitting them himself. Yet, we feel for Jack despite his gaping flaws because he is always reaching, striving to be a better person. The fact that he is at fault in the accident that upends Cristina’s life and draws Paul into an act of violence of which we hoped he wasn’t capable is the cruelest of ironies, one that reverberates through the film’s second half and leaves us shaken.
González Iñárritu tells 21 Grams in a fractured narrative style that moves fluidly not only among the three intersecting plotlines, but also across time into the past and future. Throughout the film, he scatters brief bits of imagery that don’t have a context at that point, but eventually fit into the puzzle as the narrative progresses. This can be a perplexing narrative strategy, but González Iñárritu balances it so well with the film’s heavy thematic material that it feels integral, not decorative. Because the characters themselves are so fundamentally broken and disjointed, it seems only right that their stories be told in jagged pieces that don’t fully come together until the end, and even there we are left with as many questions as we have answers.
Copyright © 2004 James Kendrick