review by Cynthia
Fuchs, 12 December 2003
rather die outside.
-- Paul (Sean Penn), 21 Grams
This is death's waiting room. These ridiculous tubes. These needles
swelling my arms. What am I doing in this pre-corpse club? What do I
have to do with them? I don't know when anything began anymore, or
when it's going to end."
Rivers (Sean Penn) lies encased in tape and tubes, the camera
peering at him through the bars of his hospital bed or hovering,
ominously. He appears this way in one of the first scenes in
Alejandro González Iñárritu's 21 Grams, though it's not
precisely one of the first scene's in the chronology. Much like the
director's first film, 2000's Amores Perros, the new one
tracks multiple storylines. This time, the fragmentation is more
pronounced, chaotic to the point of mathematical precision.
metaphor has to do with Paul's work -- he's a mathematics professor
-- as well as the film's shape. A series of seeming accidents, story
fragments, and shattered images interconnect with a precision that
seems contrived, but also resonates. The nonlinear structure
eventually brings together three characters: Paul, whose damaged
heart requires a transplant; Cristina (Naomi Watts), who loses her
husband Michael (Danny Huston) and two young daughters to a terrible
car accident; and Jack (Benicio Del Toro), hard-working,
literal-minded born-again driver of the pickup truck that runs down
Christina's family. When Michael's heart proves compatible with
Paul, the survivors' lives are inextricably entwined.
far, so machinated. Frankly, the heart business, so relentlessly
resonant as metaphor and myth (see, for example, Return to Me)
is this film's least effective element. Paul's determination to find
the donor's widow and their eventual collaboration in tracking his
accidental murderer (even after Jack has done his time in prison,
only one of the series of punishments he seeks) make for a
preposterous plot, especially if it were laid out in chronological
order. But Guillermo Arriaga's screenplay is fractured enough, and
Rodrigo Prieto's brilliant cinematography detailed and rough enough,
that such conjured interconnections occasionally recede into
irrelevance. And that's when you can see what's at stake, namely,
the incessant effort to make sense of disorder.
approach is partly reckless (he sneaks cigarettes in his bathroom,
dragging his IV drip behind him, hiding from his wife Mary
[Charlotte Gainsbourg]), partly curious, and partly scrupulous.
Volunteering his understanding of how two people might meet, he
explains, "There's a number hidden in every act of life, in
every aspect of the universe. Fractals, matter, there are numbers
screaming to tell us something."
"something" provides the demanding substance and the
strange poetry of 21 Grams. A film that benefits from
re-viewing, such that the overarching heart gimmick can be granted
and complicated by the incredible details what's on the screen, it
is already notorious for what the New York Times has called
its "grim" mood and refusal to pull punches. But as
Cristina becomes increasingly distraught (to her father's gentle
attempt to soothe her, she mutters, "That's a lie: life does
not go on"), the film doesn't so much take you inside her grief
(though it does that), as it takes you in and out, glancing at means
of coping and not.
recovering addict introduced in the film asleep on her white sheets,
watched over by Paul, naked and smoking, Cristina finds herself
undone by the accident. Watts again, following Mulholland Drive
and The Ring, reveals astonishing emotional reserves:
Cristina is at once steely and broken, determined and utterly
perplexed. She seeks habit, something that allows her to stop
feeling. She swims at a public pool with her sister Claudia (Clea
DuVall), she listens again and again to the last message Michael
left on her machine, a scant few minutes before he died, her
children's joyful voices in the background. And then she starts
using again: her dealer Ana (Catherine Dent) offers her new pills:
"R2, the shit's all the rage. You take two of these, you go
straight to heaven." And this would be the goal, to get off
earth, somehow, for some brief respite. As much as Paul works to
keep her clean ("You don't need this stuff"), she's lost
and angry, fierce ("Don't tell me what I need").
the same time, and in equally splintered bits, Jack is struggling to
understand why God has done this to him, and everyone else. Having
turned his life around following a stint in prison, he's devoted
himself to Jesus, guided by the patient Reverend John (Eddie
Marsan). Unable to keep a job (his tattoos upset the golfers at a
club where he's doing maintenance work), Jack enforces his own faith
at home. He lacks any sense of proportion, though, punishing minor
infractions with a fervent righteousness, desperate to ensure that
his two young kids and students down at the center follow a straight
and narrow path. To heaven, perhaps.
piety becomes increasingly unfeasible, however, especially following
the accident, when, oddly like Cristina, he is unable to move on.
Agonizing in prison, he confronts Reverend John, asking how God
could have allowed this to happen. "Jesus didn't come to free
us from pain," John explains patiently. "He came to give
us the strength to bear it." It's a tidy, no fault formulation,
and Jack can't bear it. He's out of strength. Even as his own
longsuffering and alarmingly realistic wife Marianne (the terrific
Melissa Leo) urges him to "go on," he sobs, unable to
forget the damage or forgive himself.
21 Grams has it, the most difficult aspect of "going
on" is the lie that must propel it. The only way to survive
catastrophe is by pretending you're all right, going through motions
repeatedly until they become routine again, even though the very
notion of routine has been ripped loose from your conceptual
framework. The most common form of routine is institutional faith,
or maybe addiction: both involve work and dedication, giving
yourself over to a greater power, believing it is a greater power,
whether it's god, desire, or death. "How many lives do we live?
How many times do we die?" wonders Paul, tubed up during
another of his hospital snippet-scenes. Can it matter, the number?
And to whom? As Paul notes, his breath labored, 21 grams is the
reported weight a person loses at the moment of dying, "the
weight of a hummingbird," he muses, or a "chocolate
bar." What sort of loss is this, the number? And for whom?
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Benicio Del Toro
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult