How Much Does Life Weigh? And How Much Does Guilt Weigh?

12/10/2011 18:40

Review of 21 Grams (2003), dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu

"They say we all lose 21 grams at the exact moment of our death... everyone. The weight of a stack of nickels. The weight of a chocolate bar. The weight of a hummingbird...”


From the pen of a Mexican director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, 21 Grams (2003) is an intense, downbeat psychological drama that captures the fleeting nature of each heart’s temporal beat. A unique kaleidoscope of images that resolves itself into a powerful story about death and fate. Like some sort of a personal signature, Iñárritu revels in the dark corners of human nature and intentionally depicts situations in which basic human instincts contradict better judgment. How do you cope with loss? And guilt? How do you thank for life, how do you repent your sins? Those are difficult questions to answer and 21 Grams does not offer any answers either. It merely illustrates.


In my reviews I tend to provide a very detailed summary of what happens. But this time I don’t want to spoil the movie for you in case you have not seen it yet. So I am going to try not to give away any crucial moments and just stick to the facts. The plot centers around three main characters: three completely strange people living three separate lives, brought together by a tragedy. Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) is an ex-convict who has spent more time in prison than out of it. A newly born who has reformed his life through devotion to God. Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a middle-aged mathematician, dying of heart failure, with only one more month left to live. He is trapped in a troubled marriage to a British emigrant Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), which is as doomed as he is. Mary wants Paul’s child, though he will plainly not live long enough to see his offspring grow. Christine Peck (Naomi Watts) is a former drug addict, whose past catches up on her when her two adorable daughters and loving husband die unexpectedly in a car crash, thrusting her back into the whirlwind of drugs-induced haze.


The most striking feature about this metaphorical film poem is its narrative style. Although the movie was shot linearly, the editing is taken to absolute extremes. You might have seen films that experiment with timelines, such as Memento, which is shown in reverse and requires multiple viewings for one to appreciate its complexity and the filmmakers’ artistry. 21 Grams is another movie that successfully employs the non-linear chronology. The scenes in 21 Grams are distributed at random, or so it seems, which makes watching it really frustrating. We move forward and backwards in time, and jump from character to character with dizzying intensity. The past, present and future converge. It’s like a cinematic form of coitus interruptus, in which once on the verge of revealing the underlying idea, the narration is abruptly interrupted by an unrelated fragment and picked up at some other point, leaving us unsatisfied, craving for more. We know bits and pieces, like where the characters have been or where they are headed. Like a huge jigsaw puzzle. You’ve got the picture broken into thousand pieces; you just don’t know how to put them together. But here is no universal key, just as there is no definite picture. The key lies in everyone’s own psyche: eventually we will all end up with a different collage of emotions. The fractured chronology makes the storyline incredibly difficult to follow and at first, the movie will not make much sense. But unlike in Memento, the pieces will ultimately fit together perfectly. In the end, even the title will be put into context. I can promise that much.


Naturally, the story could have been told in a conventional straightforward fashion and it would make perfect sense; nevertheless, the film would definitely lose on its attractiveness. The editing is an added value, a bonus, the icing on the cake. The non-linear narration allows us to see the three main characters in various stages of the story and in myriad circumstances without unnecessary repetition. Their lives are weaved together in a perfect way, though we don’t understand how at first. What makes the movie so frustrating to watch is that we get the facts first and only later do we form the associations. It is a clever gimmick designed to make the movie more engaging. But it’s not just that. There is a completely legitimate reason for using this intriguing technique: not only does it accentuate the characters’ complexity, but it also highlights the absurdity of a mere coincidence and challenges the existence of a chance meeting or a pure stroke of fate. After all, every action causes a reaction, doesn’t it? And this movie is exactly about such a domino effect.


By employing the unconventional non-linear narrative technique, Iñárritu forces us to pay extreme attention right from the beginning and absorb every detail hungrily, which, under “normal” circumstances, might have escaped our eyes. Thus, the viewer becomes hypersensitized to everything that he/she sees.


21 Grams has a stunningly good casting. The actors’ performance is simply overwhelming. None of the characters is depicted in the old-fashioned black-and-white way. Besides that, the audience will appreciate that the filmmakers did not attempt to hammer any moral lesson into the film. Benicio Del Toro’s character is particularly fascinating. He tries to be a good and righteous man, living according to God’s commandments and preaching his word, and he is far from being a religious hypocrite: he is consumed by genuine grief and immense guilt every time he strays from the right path. He has developed a strong conscience and although there are no witnesses to the accident he caused, he turns himself in and goes to jail, heedless of his wife’s pleas to stay and be a father to his children. He can’t stand looking at them, knowing that he put an end to lives of two innocent girls. Christine and Paul are unable to understand his suffering and are wrong to condemn him for what he did. They simply fail to see it from his own perspective: what Jack does is understandable on the basic human level. We are all imperfect, we are no saints and we all make mistakes.


The fractured arrangement of the storyline is to blame when it comes to our concern for the characters. The audience will not grow particularly attached to any of them because they will be busy putting all the loose pieces of this puzzle together. By the end of the movie, when we finally manage to untangle all the threads, we will also understand the characters’ faults and motives. Therefore, we can hardly blame Christine for her thirst for revenge or Paul for his wish to repay his life, which he gets in return for someone else’s death. The characters are trapped in their own world, with their own weaknesses and imperfections. But we as omniscient viewers will see that they are simply victims of cruel fate rather than being guilty of anything themselves.


In my personal humble opinion, the movie illustrates metaphorically the fragility of life and its transience. (I mean it is clearly a meditation on the interplay between life and dying). In its core (both the movie’s and life’s) stands the heart—the soul’s engine, which is lost, gained, broken, anguished. And above everything stands the human desperate will to live, forever struggling to carve out our mortal hearts’ desires. It is definitely one of the most compelling pictures I have seen recently. It is admirable in many aspects, but if I were to pick one, it would be the director’s ability to weave a nugget of hope in the darkest of circumstances that the movie is packed with. It is a kind of a movie that will be stuck in your head for a few days, before you can finally let go of it. It has my highest recommendation.

Zuzana Starovecká

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