21 Grams (2003)

UPDATE 2007: Now that I’ve met Alejandro González Iñárritu, I’m a bigger fan of the man. He’s thoughtful, devoted to his family, eloquent, approachable, and passionate about excellence.

But that doesn’t make me like 21 Grams any more than I did before. I greatly admire Amores Perros, the first film in his “human beings are miserable all around the world” trilogy. And Babel is even better, one of the best films of 2006. But 21 Grams was severely over-acted, and the storylines were implausible to the point of lunacy. At times it seemed to have been set in a world beseiged by a pale green algae… it was just unpleasant to look at. And then there’s that sex scene… which is indulgent, gratuitous, and exploitative. It’s just such a shame, because there was so much potential, the themes are so important, and the cast so talented.

Anyway, here’s my oversized review…

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This review was originally published in 2003.

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Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who previously delivered the critically acclaimed Amores Perros, is back with yet another testament to his formidable filmmaking talents. 21 Grams boasts brilliant cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, several unforgettably intense sequences, and commanding performances from Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and especially Benicio Del Toro.

Just as he did in Iñárritu’s earlier film, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga provides a trio of crisscrossing narratives that overlap in a central, traumatizing event. And once again, the stories are chopped into mincemeat and scattered, leaving us to piece together their proper chronological order.

This confusion of chronology, which has become so popular since Pulp Fiction, may add to the film’s fascination for some, but the question must be asked: Does this contribute to our understanding of the film as a meaningful work of art, as it does in the writing of Faulkner? Or does it merely throw us off-balance, using an artificial device to engage us in what would otherwise become evident as a rather preposterous bit of storytelling?

For this reviewer, 21 Grams is unfortunately an example of the latter. While Iñárritu clearly has profound questions on his mind, he does not seem as interested in answering them as he does in smacking the audience around. His disorienting storytelling devices certainly keep us on our toes, but they seem ultimately designed to shock and manipulate our emotions rather than guide us to edifying reflection.

21 Grams refers, I am told, to the amount of weight that allegedly leaves the body at the moment of death. By implication, it represents the soul. Making this the title of the movie is a fine example of Iñárritu’s inclinations toward poetry and profundity, but the film seems unable to arrive at any particularly enlightening conclusion. In other words, the film introduces intriguing questions, but does it do anything worthwhile with them?

What does the title have to do with the story? There is no dialogue about this phenomenon. In fact, the movie isn’t really about dying at all, but rather the frustrations, rage, and self-destructive responses that others have when death destabilizes their lives.

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Sean Penn plays a math instructor named Paul Rivers who is dying of heart disease.

Okay, stop there. That’s the first piece of heavy emotional luggage the movie will ask us to carry. Rivers’ heart is giving out on him. He has to have heart surgery; he has to look upon and ponder the flaws of his old heart; and he has to wait and see if this new heart will “take.”

Add to that the dilemmas perplexing his wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who wants to get pregnant with him before his demise. She asks him to agree to artificial insemination, and tries to hide from him the fact that she has in the past had an abortion.

Okay, stop again. Now we have several heavy burdens to carry. We are also asked to accept the abortion as something that is a tragedy only because it was kept secret. There is no question at all about the value of the unborn child’s life, and whether this choice was ethical or otherwise. There is no question as to whether the little human being had any rights. There is only angst over the secret being kept.

Rivers is a mathematician, we learn, only because in one scene we see him carrying a book about mathematics. I suppose we could draw from this that he is obsessed with subtraction — he’s gained a heart, and someone else has lost a heart. He can’t live with that unevenness, and wants to give something back. He rejects grace. He wants to seek out the person who gave him his heart. He’s not sure exactly why, except that he wants to find a way to bless the donor. His idea of how to “bless” them is, in the end, another example of intense selfishness, arrogance, and insensitivity.

Penn is well-cast as this angst-burdened sufferer. In recent years, he has seemed to be obsessed with taking the roles of the most damaged and frustrated characters around. Dead Man Walking was sheer brilliance, but since then he has weakened the impact of that role by taking on similarly haunted figures in The Thin Red Line and Mystic River, and now this. If he keeps over-acting like this, his sterling reputation as an actor is bound to nosedive, and he’ll become a self-parody. If he keeps furrowing his brow like that, I fear that it’ll stick that way.

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Equaling his performance with her anguish and rage, Naomi Watts plays Christina Peck, a woman who once wasted her life on drugs and parties, but who has pulled things together to have a meaningful life as a wife and mother.

Yep… it’s another tidal wave of dysfunction. The movie opens as Christina is traumatized by the sudden loss of her fragile but fulfilling existence. When her loving husband (Danny Huston) and daughters are taken from her, we are asked to re-live her agonizing moment of realization over and over again in the form of a last message on the answering machine. As if worried that we will forget the source of her pain, Iñárritu plays the message again and again, teasing us with images leading up to the tragedy.

Clea DuVall, who seems to be cast more and more for her ability to cry, even hysterically (here and in Identity), plays Christina’s weepy sister.

Having lost what brought her life meaning, Christina goes on to demonstrate that she did not learn anything from this grace offered to her. She plunges headlong back into her old habits. Watching Naomi Watts’ performance as this self-destructive character, I realized I’d seen her do this before: she acted out a similar disintegration in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, from beautiful purposeful woman to self-destructive wretch consumed by baser instincts.

To make matters worse, Christina is soon being stalked by Mr. Rivers.

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In yet another story of a broken life repaired, and then destroyed all over again, Jack Jordan has escaped alcoholism and become a born again Christian.

Uh-oh. In telling this story, Iñárritu shows that he has observed the outer details about the way Christian communities work, but utterly fails to explore any real spiritual questions related to the message or influence of Jesus Christ in the minds and hearts of believers.

At home, Jack’s Christianity is made manifest in bizarre behavior of obvious contradiction and commanding authoritarianism. While I believe there are people who behave like this, in combination with the rest of the film’s exhibitions of extreme and idiotic behavior, Jack’s story becomes just another punch in stomach, just part of a contrived assault on our emotions.

When tragedy brings Jack to question his faith, he quickly succumbs to doubts. He’s no Job. He seems to have been taught that the gospel means our lives will be journeys of peace and stability, that he has the right to abuse his wife and children, and that he gets the last word in everything. When things go wrong, Jack quickly becomes angry with God and holds a grudge. The film clearly aims to convince us that Christianity is a feeble façade, an emotional crutch that may help people overcome alcoholism, but fails under any serious testing.

But its assertion that Christianity fails is based on the assumption that Christian faith, if it is true, will satisfy all of our desires here and now. This disregards some of the most foundational tenants of Christian faith… that is a journey of faith, not certainty; sacrifice, not success. Faith requires us to “carry a cross.” Like so many films that treat religion with condescension, 21 Grams assumes that human satisfaction is the highest ideal, rather than humility and an awakening to our place in the grand scheme of things.

And like so many films that fumble the idea of faith, Christ is carefully kept out of the equation. If the film considered Jesus at all, we would be reminded that Jesus suffered too, and that the Christian life is one of self-denial and suffering, not a twelve-step program leading us to good cheer.

But enough about that….

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To avoid saying too much about the plot, suffice it to say that Rivers soon finds a reason to hunt down Jack with murderous intent. Oh, and along the way, he and Christina engage in graphic, drawn-out, desperate lovemaking that is portrayed as some sort of epiphany, some spiritual revelation. What it is, actually, is the culmination of their selfishness, their recklessness.

Further, it is here that the director’s inclination to arrest his audience’s attention shows he is not averse to employing excessive, explicit nudity. As anyone who has followed my reviews knows, I am not averse to the use of nudity in film. The human body is, and always has been, one of the great subjects of art, capable of inspiring us to awe and reverence. Actors who consent to such work for the greater good of meaningful art make an honorable decision. But when nudity is used gratuitously, in a way that does not enhance our understanding, it becomes merely a distraction and, for some, an indulgence and a temptation. More often than not, it hurts the movie by taking the audience’s attention out of the story. We are left sitting there thinking, “Wow. That’s Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. What must their spouses think about this?” Or, if we are weak, the imagery may as well be pornography.

Thus, 21 Grams boils down to a story of three fractured characters crashing into each other like zombies until they’re all a bundle of bruises and bitterness. This is peppered with cheap thrills, to keep us enthralled. Since God, who might offer them strength and consolation, is quickly rejected as either a lie or a sadistic and unsympathetic entity, they’re left with only their own battle-scarred hearts as a source of redemption.

In the end, this tangled web of contrivance comes to an implausible resolution that attempts to offer us some kind of hope. But, ironically, that comes when the characters take their first steps toward imitating Christ, as if this is their own brilliant idea, when, in fact, they’ve already rejected that very idea as if it was a bad sales pitch.

The problem is not so much Iñárritu, but his Amores Perros screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga. Arriaga’s story circles big themes: our responsibility to loved ones who have passed on; the different ways we look for redemption; the existence of God and whether or not he is benevolent; whether or not severe sins can be forgiven.

There are some profoundly affecting sequences. When Penn’s character lies in his hospital bed after his operation, he holds a jar in his hand and looks at the offending heart that has just been removed. His response is unforgettable. His ensuing courtship of a woman with whom he now feels a mysterious connection is troubling and intriguing at the same time, just as Billy Bob Thornton’s approach to Holly Hunter was unnerving and yet hopeful in Ed Solomon’s Levity.

But these moments are few and far between. For the most part, 21 Grams is a hurricane of melodrama and implausibly accelerating crises that seem orchestrated merely to turn up the intensity. Like Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, it feels calculated, like the director is not really interested in exploring issues so much as he is preoccupied with skewering his characters and making them writhe and squirm. Like Mystic River, the film uses a story of misfortune and loss to drive its characters into self-absorption, irrational responses, and murderous intent. It might be a reflection of the American neuroses — we have the power, and thus when things don’t go our way, we take matters into our own hands and make them worse. But there is no reflection on a better way, no real indication that the director doubts the motives or methods of his characters.

At 125 minutes, 21 Grams feels more like 240. It’s like a mad mad merry-go-round of emotional traumas that is sure to captivate viewers with its dizzying intensity even as it throws many of them right out of involvement in the story.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Joseph

    I’d heard rumors that Neil Burger (The Illusionist) would be the director of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. We’ll just have to wait and see.


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