Overview: In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s second feature, three lives intertwine following a tragic car accident. Focus Features; 2003; Rated R; 124 Minutes.
How much does life weigh? In his debut feature, Amores Perros (2000), Iñárritu explored the cruelty of love, the obliteration of hopes, dreams and ambitions. 21 Grams forms the second part of his ‘death trilogy’ and focuses on the corporeal separation and finality of physical death. Iñárritu gives us a dying heart patient, a grieving wife and a tormented lawbreaker, intertwining their lives so tightly they can hardly breathe.
“They say we all lose 21 grams at the exact moment of our death. Everyone. And how much fits into 21 grams? How much is lost?”
Iñárritu doesn’t need to explain (although he frequently has) that it’s this weight – the sheer force of emotion that death brings – with which his film is primarily concerned. 21 Grams is no tear-jerker. It punches you in the stomach with a torrent of guilt, grief and suffering. It’s a painful, agonising viewing experience, but this is its greatest strength. Rarely is the aftermath of death presented in such a visceral, instinctive, honest way as this. But how does Iñárritu achieve it?
Instinctive storytelling: Iñárittu’s three collaborations with screenwriter Giullermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) feature interlocking perspectives and experiment with chronology. While Amores Perros tells three distinct stories loosely tied together by an accident of fate, 21 Grams tells the same story from three different perspectives. Iñárittu uses the camera to get inside the character’s heads, using cuts to illustrate what they see – like the ceiling tiles in the heart patient’s hospital bed – and to shift between different points of view. The first third of the film splices up the time sequencing to such a degree that we’re hardly sure what we are witnessing. When the moment of fusion finally occurs (about thirty minutes in) and the disparate strands coalesce, we’re faced with a sudden feeling of horror. We can already sense finality on the horizon. There are many benefits in telling the story this way. The chopped-up chronology imitates memory: recollections are sparked by emotional connections. Happy memories, the vibrancy of life, is cut together with the sickening realisation, the shock of tragic death. When a consultation at a fertility clinic cuts to a father figure’s potent advice, the film’s exploration of regret, the character’s desire to rebuild life is emphasised, enhanced. But Iñárittu explains this further: life is inevitable but it is also unpredictable. As the ending begins to crystallise we’re still not entirely sure how we’ll arrive there, it’s this idea that 21 Grams’ jumbled time structure evokes most beautifully.
Unexpected spirituality: As Cristina listens to the heart that once beat inside her husband’s chest, Iñárittu’s uncompromising film evokes the strange and unfathomable relationship between the physical and spiritual. Those 21 grams, lost at the precise moment of death not only prompt us to think about the burden of grief, but also about spirituality. Could this loss be the soul? And where does it go? Faith is, perhaps, an obvious target for a film about death. Tragedy naturally intensifies doubts about the existence of a higher power. Yet Iñárittu’s treatment of faith is unexpected. Here, in the agony of grief, religion is not a support, it’s not even a question mark. It is a torment. All of the characters have a chance at redemption prior to the fatal car crash that unites them. Cristina (Naomi Watts) is a reformed addict. Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is a former convict who has repaired his life through religion. But neither of their reformations is repaid with mercy and both suffer the worst agonies. Betrayed by his God Jack yells in anguish, “Jesus chose me for this.” Iñárittu drags his characters writhing and screaming from the right path into a living hell.
Sean Penn, Naomi Watts & Benicio Del Toro: It’s a powerhouse of talent. Benicio Del Toro flicks convincingly between angry, preaching father and stricken, hopeless wretch, while Sean Penn’s visible ill-health bookmarks the key time switches. Dragging around an oxygen tank with tubes funnelling from his nose, Sean Penn’s physical transformation is dramatic. As he stumbles through his apartment in sallow skin, struggling to breathe yet still grasping at a cigarette, 21 Grams makes for difficult viewing. Iñárittu is uncompromising in his uncomfortable attention to details – honing in on Penn’s pale, cold, wasted feet – and lingering close ups. He holds Naomi Watts in an agonising frame as she crumbles to the ground in the wake of devastating news. It’s arguably the performance of her career.
Hope from the darkness: Iñárittu’s drained palette is the very definition of bleak but he leaves us with some small hopes. Throughout 21 Grams Iñárittu reminds us that life goes on, not always how we might expect it, and often in spite of our anguish. Reinforcing the importance and weight of life, Iñárittu’s 21 Grams can not be taken lightly. Once seen it stays with you forever.