Every reviewer of this film will explain the title. They will tell you that it’s not a reference to illicit drugs. It’s the supposed weight of your soul. Someone studied the weight of people before and just after they died and determined we lose 21 grams, no matter our pre-death weight, upon our demise. Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu title their raw and wrenching creation 21 Grams as a bit of ironic understatement. It’s practically a cosmic joke. After watching this painful exploration of three lives intersecting in the most severe and violent ways, it may take 21 grams to lighten your load. This film is not about the lightness of the soul. It is about the crushing weight of the choices we make, the repercussions of those choices, and the guilt and the sacrifices we suffer because of them.
Director Inarritu, whose Amores Perros won an Oscar nomination in 2000, weaves the stories of a mathematician (Sean Penn, using every one of his wheezing, ashen-skinned, method-acting chops) in desperate need of a heart transplant; an ex-con Bible thumper with all the good fortune of a modern-day Job (played brilliantly with greasy, nervous energy by Benicio Del Toro); and a young, beautiful middle-class mother who likes to swim (Naomi Watts). This is an actor’s movie, and Inarritu lingers on every tic, every squinting stare, every moment of their slow, terrible descent into irretrievable tragedy. It’s a grim and grimy but ultimately transcendent experience watching these folks fall apart.
Paul, the mathematician, is waiting for a heart, but someone has to die first. So, he lies around his apartment hooked to an oxygen tank, sneaking smokes in the bathroom. While he slowly disintegrates, his wife glumly discusses fertilization with her doctor. She wants a baby, but time is running out for Paul.
Jack, the tattooed and short-tempered ex-con, holds court at a downtown, storefront evangelical church. He counsels others heading where he came from: a hard, shitty life of hopelessness, booze and jail. He’s got a wife and a couple kids and he’s trying hard to keep it together.
Christina lives in the suburbs with her two daughters and her husband. We see the daughters enjoying a trip to a local diner with their dad. They are a picture-perfect bunch. Generally speaking, in the movies that means someone’s going to die. And they do — three of them, leaving Christina all alone.
Screenwriter Arriaga employs a very unusual and effective narrative style to tell how these three people, who probably wouldn’t look twice at each other on the street, are brought together. The film shows consequences before the actions that stirred them, climaxes before the circumstances that warrant them. It’s not the rolling backward flow of Memento or the flashback style of Sunset Boulevard. It’s a glimpse here, an apparently disjointed sequence there, a flash of words and screams. It’s befores and afters, all expertly placed to nudge you toward conclusions that may come true or may just fizzle. The hand-held camera technique employed to record all this complements the sloppy, disheveled lives it captures. Its grainy, under-lit tone puts us behind the bloodshot, aching eyes that inhabit this tragedy. 21 Grams can be hard to watch, but you’ll never look away.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111 for more information.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.