dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
[img_assist|nid=1037|title=Let's overact together, shall we?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=449|height=406]
Poetically, romantically, the human soul is said to weigh 21 grams. This is based on experiments inaccurately carried out long ago which claimed that upon death a person would instantly lose 21 grams of weight, thus the departure of the soul must be responsible for the change. Of course it has no basis in reality. But the central question still remains: whether the body loses 21 grams or not upon death, how much do we lose when those we love die? How much do they lose when we die? When we take a life, save a life, how much is gained? How much is lost? This film seems to indicate that at the very least it's something more than 21 grams.
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu is two for two. After his most excellent debut with Amores Perros, along with writing partner Guillermo Arriaga he again delivers a compelling, emotional and thoughtful film which packs an emotional punch without resorting to cheap tricks or manipulation. Whilst most will focus on the disjointed chronology with which the story is portrayed through the complicated editing, at its core the film deals with powerful moments in these character's lives which rarely if ever overstep the bounds of genuine drama into kitchen-sink melodrama. The film achieves pathos without bathos, which is a glib way of saying that it's a damn fine film.
Every one of the actors delivers the goods. Sean Penn and Naomi Watts have garnered the lion's share of the praise in the acting stakes, but all the actors involved are truly at the top of their game. Benicio Del Toro portrays a difficult character undergoing dramatic upheavals in his life and the way in which he views himself. He brings as much if not more to the table than anyone else. And though she's barely mentioned in the reams of laudatory praise that the film has been receiving, the actor that plays his character's wife Marianne (Melissa Leo) is particularly good too. She has a bunch of scenes that provide the perfect counterbalance to what he's going through.
There is much comparison made between 21 Grams and Amores Perros, butI have to say in my estimation they're very different films. The similarities are only superficial. The tone of the films is substantially different, also the subject matter, and the way the story is told significantly differs. Amores Perros dealt with three
stories that are connected by chance, connected by one event, told individually (and in my opinion, only two of those segments worked convincingly, the first and the third). Each story lived on its own independently, almost virtually as short films, although the manner in which they are connected is well realised and improves the entire film.
Here the fractured narrative tells the story of three different people united by loss: one person is gradually losing their life second by second, one person loses their family, and another loses their faith. Their lives come to be connected by a catastrophic event, but their existences become so completely intertwined that the story takes on a significantly different character from its predecessor.
But then again having just written that I can see how similar they might seem. Ignoring that, this is an even better film than Amores Perros in my anything but humble opinion, and I love that film. The natural-feeling drama that these characters go through never hits a single wrong note. It always feels genuine, even when and sometimes because of how uncomfortable it gets.
I had a mistaken impression going into this film that a large part of it had to do with drug addiction. It doesn't. Instead it seems that there are aspects of the story that represent the various crutches that people use to get themselves through the nightmare that is daily life; be they religion, booze, hard drugs or self-abnegation. Life is messy and many of these characters are shown at their messiest. Having said that watching the story unfold was not, at least for me, as harrowing an experience as I thought it would be. Because the beginning, middle and conclusion are all happening concurrently it took away the feeling of dread that I expected, and this also comes about because I cared about the characters and the pain and confusion they were going through, rather than fearing what would happen to them. The structure doesn't detract from this either, fortunately.
The risk you run with non-linear narrative in a film is twofold, in that you remind the spectator with such deconstructive techniques that they're watching a film. That in turn can alienate an audience by taking them out of the film. In this film the story is jumping continuously from 'past' to 'future / conclusion' in such a manner as to remove the concept of a solid 'present'. This doesn't negate the progression of the narrative, not at all, but I'm sure it could be at least disorientating to some viewers. Had it not been for certain visual cues such as facial hair, drug use and hair styles I might have been up shit creek without a paddle in terms of working out what was going on. And when, more importantly.
Of course nothing that I've just said should make a potential viewer wary of approaching such a film. Ideally nothing I've just written should bore a potential reader either, but we live in an imperfect world, alas. And in the same manner in which my reviews shouldn't be boring, neither is this film: it's really not that complicated. The core is the fact that you are witness to some powerful exchanges between exceptionally human characters, and the film lives or dies for you based on your ability to care. Or not.
The characters, being characters as opposed to the cliches, stereotypes and ciphers you get in 95% of movies, are rough-edged, clumsy, well-intentioned, hopeful, vulnerable and make plenty of bad
decisions. Their behaviour is not governed by a trite overarching moral or a single defining line that can be summarised in a few words for the dunderheads in marketing to be plastered across the promotional posters: "21 Grams! Eat Your Vegetables!", or "21 Grams: It's Important to Be Yourself, Especially When Everything We Tell You Says That The Only Path To Happiness is Monogamous Relationships, Popularity and Conformity, Fatty!"
Hmm, now that I think about those last two lines, I think that's proof positive why my illustrious career in advertising was so short-lived. That and my lack of a rampant cocaine habit. Anyway, the main characters in this film: Paul (Sean Penn), Cristina (Naomi Watts) and Jack (Benicio Del Toro) behave like real people experiencing traumatic events on an all-too-human scale. Their disasters, their crises of faith, their loss of hope and their attempts at connection / redemption / vengeance are messy, misguided and in some cases
heartbreaking, but they're always believable, which is something I can rarely say about the phantoms populating most films.
Penn has been lionised for his two great performances in 2003, in this film and in Mystic River, and whilst it's impossible to say in which he gives the better performance, it is with great ease that I can select the better film. His performance here is certainly quieter, more subtle and nuanced, he's called on to do less but it's still a consummate portrayal. He's so good that you forget that the guy was once married to Madonna. Seriously, he's that good. And as overrated as I found Mystic River to be, I certainly can't say that about this film.
Naomi Watts gets to do lots of drugs and scream a lot, which she does very well. It's hard to play the kind of character she does here without turning it into something quite annoying, and she completely avoids that pitfall with professional ease. Her downward spiral is painful to watch but for the right reasons. I don't know how someone is supposed to act who's lost the one thing that had any meaning in their life, but she manages to convey it beautifully, as well as the struggle to keep living whilst maintaining that all important
self-destructive drive. Perhaps only some of us can relate to that. I thought she was tremendous a few year's back in Mulholland Dr., but she exceeds that work convincingly.
Benicio Del Toro, well, he's just tremendously good. His character's fall from grace isn't as jagged or sharp as Watts, but is all the more haunting because of his wounded soul. The film avoids judging, jurying or executing our characters unfairly, which means the lack of the black and white renders them all real without labelling victims, villains, or saints. As the character whose struggles with his faith, naturally he has to suffer a whole hell of a lot, and I have to say I really felt for the guy during his trials and tribulations.
There's another issue that came to mind whilst I was watching the film. I understand the role that cigarettes, alcohol and drugs play in this film and in the character's lives, I understand what their use at certain points is supposed to mean. At some points it simply is what it is, and at others it represents just how fucked up our characters are supposed to be. What I find funny is that for some people, living / occasionally staying in shitty hotels, drinking whisky, chain smoking and cursing God is a daily reality. It's almost humorous to me
that such a day-to-day existence is seen as being torment of almost Biblical proportions, whereas I just call it Tuesday :)
Be that as it may, it certainly doesn't detract from the power of the film at all. It's not a depressing film either, at least not for me. At film's end, after the amazingly affecting ending narration, with its touching eulogy regarding the film's title, my foremost feeling was the desire to go home and to embrace my beloved, to express my gratitude that she has not as yet been taken away from me by a vengeful god. Though it serves to remind me that one day, one day...
8 Christians running over heathens out of 10
"How many lives do we live? How many times do we die? 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? When do we lose 21 grams? How much goes with them? How much is gained? - 21 Grams