Following the funeral of his son-in-law, a father empathizes with his daughter by relating how he moved past the death of his wife, her mother. He reassures her that in spite of the hard times ahead, ‘life goes on.’ She retorts, ‘That’s a lie. Life doesn’t go on.’
Welcome to everyone’s life. Death is a ubiquitous occurrence, dumped upon us daily by CNN and more occasionally – yet still inevitably – in our own intimate moments. But when death strikes our lives, it invariably shatters our psyches and changes us for the darker, no matter how we try to prepare to accept it.
The three main characters of 21 Grams find themselves linked together by common deaths. A heart transplant has just saved the life of lecherous college professor Paul (Sean Penn), but the guilt of survival has overwhelmed him. Like a man who feels a phantom arm after it’s taken by a thresher, Paul feels a phantom death and a crushing psychological debt to the donor.
Paul soon falls in with the aforementioned young widow, Cristina (Naomi Watts), a onetime party girl who traded in drugs and booze for a family life she had come to cherish. Cristina begins her spiral into desperation and bloodlust when Jack (Benicio Del Toro), a reformed ex-con who has fully embraced Jesus, commits the horrendous hit-and-run that sets the story in motion, an accident that rips him from his world of church and family and into punishment and solitude.
Against this gut-wrenching backdrop, the performances are astonishing. Penn and Del Toro writhe with guilt and loathing, and both teeter on the verge of implosion. Penn’s cardiac issues seem to bubble up through his eyes, and Del Toro immerses himself in a self-hatred that seems all too real.
Watts is simply a revelation. Best known to American audiences for her star turn in the 2002 horror-thriller The Ring, this role provides a pale-gray canvas for her to display her acting chops. Even sharing screen time with two of the masters of emoting, Watts’ devastation, rage, and bloodthirst sear nearly every scene.
But the real star of this movie is the Mexican production team of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, and photographer Rodrigo Prieto, who previously brought the widely acclaimed Amores Perros to American art-houses. Their new work tells its story in shards, moving back and forth through time in a way we haven’t seen since Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey. Disorientation sets in early as characters and settings change rapid-fire, but as the story develops it becomes both simpler and richer at the same time. Tears are never jerked; crying somehow doesn’t even seem worthy of a picture this valuable.
The visuals are as much a part of the story as the script. Filmed in pallid watercolors against a bleak sky, Prieto’s visions of bare trees, hospital ceilings, and an empty swimming pool overcast the optimism we expect from Middle America.
Gloomy as it may be, 21 Grams is ultimately hopeful, and while you won’t emerge feeling uplifted, it’s impossible to deny this film’s rewards. The trailer notes that 21 Grams is the weight of a hummingbird, but it bears a heaviness you’ll feel long after the lights come up.
Looking for a connection.