21 Grams is the English language debut of Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu, whose first film 'Amores Perros’ was released to huge international acclaim in 2000. The plot centres around three main characters; Christine (Naomi Watts), a former drug addict whose world is shattered by the death of her husband and two daughters, Paul (Sean Penn) a dying maths professor who is desperately in need of a new heart, and Jack (Benicio del Toro) the ex-con turned Jesus-botherer who is responsible for accidentally killing Christine’s family. The film’s non-linear narrative bounces us back and forth in time as the terrible sequence of events unfold and the lives of Christine, Paul and Jack become intertwined.
This is a film of considerable emotional weight. Within its 125 minutes it covers such heavyweight topics as love, death, faith, family breakdown, serious illness, drug use and infertility. There is no escape from the unrelenting tragedy that permeates the lives of the main characters and their families. Scenes showing Christine’s daughters laughing and joking are overshadowed by our knowledge of what will happen to them. When Jack attends church and joins in loudly with the rest of his congregation there is no sense of joy. Instead he comes across as overzealous to the point of being slightly deranged. Our suspicions are proven when a family dinner turns into a very disturbing lesson on the teachings of Jesus. Make no mistake, this is a dark, dark film.
On the good side, the performances by Watts et al are absolutely stunning. All three manage perfectly to capture and convey the pain and complexity of their characters. Watts is superb as the young mother whose loss propels her back into the world of drink and narcotics that she escaped from six years previously. Del Toro’s portrayal of the guilt-ridden Jack is never more than completely convincing. Penn is his usual excellent self, with a wheezing cough that leaves the viewer feeling equally choked and breathless.
Equally Iñárritu’s use of cinematic techniques such as using handheld cameras and several types of film stock are extremely effective in adding atmosphere, giving the impression to some scenes of tired and bleached whilst others are darker and more intimate.
The major criticism I have of 21 Grams has to do with another one of the artistic devices used. I am referring to the jumpy, non-linear way in which the film is edited together. The end-start-middle-start-etc style of editing has been used to great effect in films such as 'Pulp Fiction’ and 'Memento’ but here it succeeds in doing nothing more than negating much of the emotional resonance of the performances. Also, if the intention was to make each short scene a clue to the final denouement then it really does not work as the ending is fairly predictable.
Overall 21 Grams is a film of almost unrelenting bleakness. The audience is hit with a constant barrage of drama and human emotion which ends up having a strangely numbing effect. There is no light against which to contrast the darkness of the plot. You find yourself thinking “oh, that’s terrible” but not really feeling much at all. Not what the director intended I’d imagine.
The title of the film comes from experiments conducted in 1907 by one Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who found that on death the human body experiences an immediate loss in weight of 21 grams, an occurrence he postulated to be the result of the soul exiting the corpse. Dr MacDougall also carried out this experiment on dogs and discovered that the same loss of body weight did not occur – 'proving’ they didn’t have souls. If this means they don’t have to suffer through emotionally overwrought movies like 21 Grams then all I can say is lucky dogs!