There are some movies that are so grim, so depressing, that you practically feel like blowing your own brains out after you see them. I’m talking about pictures that present the most traumatic events in life, yet do so without any moments of humor or levity to temper the misery on-screen. For me, such films include What Dreams May Come, White Oleander, and now 21 Grams. Don’t get me wrong – this is a good movie; it just sent me away feeling really, really bad.
Benicio Del Toro plays Jack Jordan, an ex-con who has rehabilitated himself by becoming a born-again Christian. His wife Marianne (Melissa Leo) scarcely knows what to think of her once-rugged husband’s newfound obsession with religion. Despite his devotion to his faith, Jack still has some rough edges. He picks a fight with a delinquent youth he works with at a church-based rehab, and he gets fired from his job at a golf club because he has too many tattoos.
As a distraught Jack is speeding home one day, he rounds a corner too quickly and runs over a man and two little girls, killing them. This was the family of Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts). There is a heartbreaking scene in which she is told her husband and daughters are all dead. Despite the overwhelming grief, Cristina refuses to file charges against the driver, who has committed a hit-and-run. Nothing will bring them back, she reasons, so what point is there in holding someone accountable? Instead, she signs a permission form so that her husband’s organs can be donated to someone in need.
Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is the recipient of the heart. He has been on death’s door for some time when the call comes through that a heart is available. This is good news to his wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who has been exploring in vitro fertilization so that she could have Paul’s child should he die. He has not been in total agreement with this plan, considering that their marriage is shaky to begin with. Paul has other concerns, specifically learning where his heart came from. He hires a private detective to seek answers. When he finds out, he is very troubled by the circumstances and seeks out Cristina in order to offer emotional support. He finds her despondent, drowning out her problems in a haze of booze and drugs.
21 Grams is a film about a lot of things: sorrow, regret, sin, redemption. It deals with many big issues. For instance, Jack is burdened with feelings of guilt over the hit-and-run accident. Despite Marianne’s hysterical pleas, he decides to turn himself in, even though it will certainly mean a return to prison. The entire episode shakes his faith, as he was trying to stay on the straight-and-narrow to do God’s work when the accident happened. Meanwhile, Paul and Cristina fall in love. When Jack turns himself in – and then essentially gets off thanks to his lawyer – Cristina’s grief turns to rage. She convinces Paul that they must find Jack and kill him. Paul is not the violent type, but he sees what pain Cristina is in, so he agrees to help.
I had a problem with this last element of the plot. Somehow, it seems too obvious, too movie-like. Considering that the screenplay deals in so many weighty issues, the whole revenge subplot is kind of a cop-out. I suppose it doesn’t help any that the resolution is kind of confusing. Rather than play it for the revenge angle, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros) and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga try to draw almost metaphysical conclusions from the finale. They use the revenge idea to Make a Statement about redemption. It never quite jibes with the stark realism of everything that comes before.
Of lesser concern is the structure of the film. Inarritu intentionally plays with the time frame. The film has flashbacks and flash-forwards almost constantly. Sometimes this approach works. Early on, we get a flash-forward that shows us all three characters in a motel room, with Paul bleeding from a gunshot wound. There is curiosity and tension as we wait to learn how these character’s paths intersect. On the other hand, all the jumping around in time becomes somewhat grating by the end. You just want the director to tell the story.
That said, there is a lot of good stuff in 21 Grams. Penn, Watts, and Del Toro all give superb performances. The characters they play are troubled people filled with pain. The actors uniformly make us care about them. Watts, in particular, is likely to get awards consideration as the grieving widow. Her breakdown scene in the hospital is absolutely heartbreaking. I have no idea how an actor can summon up such deep feelings of sorrow on command, but Watts does it in a way that will shatter you. I think my favorite of the performance, though, is from Benicio Del Toro. He does a brilliant job showing Jack’s utter confusion. Here’s a guy who thought he was turning over a new leaf. He has shunned his evil ways and given his life over to God. When tragedy strikes, he can’t believe that his transformation went cosmically unnoticed. Del Toro is absolutely riveting as he shows Jack’s struggle to make sense of it all.
I liked the themes of the movie as well. It is not afraid to explore some dark topics. This is the kind of film that makes you put yourself in the shoes of each character and ask, “What if this happened to me?” There are a number of salient points made about the nature of salvation, especially as it pertains to guilt. I admire any movie that has the courage to deal with these decidedly non-commercial things. The film’s title refers to the amount of weight supposedly lost by a person at the exact moment of death. It serves as a compelling metaphor for what the characters go through. How do you measure things like love, guilt, or anger?
I thought 21 Grams was a very good movie. It is well-made and exceptionally well-acted. It is not disposable, like so many films these days. It makes you feel something, deep down inside of you. For that reason, it is my duty to give it a positive review. But I have to be honest about one thing: I don’t know that I would actually recommend this film to anyone. It’s such a downer, such an utterly depressing piece of work. You have to go in knowing what you’re going to get; you have to be prepared – and willing – to subject yourself to it. This is not an easy movie to watch. If you’re looking for entertainment, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a high-quality movie that doesn’t make you feel despondent when it’s over, try Pieces of April or The Human Stain or Lost in Translation. On the other hand, if you’re actually looking for a gritty, emotionally gut-wrenching story that will send you away with a sorrowful heart, then 21 Grams is just the ticket.
( out of four)
21 Grams is rated R for language, sexuality, some violence and drug use. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes.
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