Warning: Some plot spoilers ahead.
I’d rather die outside.
— Paul (Sean Penn), 21 Grams
“So. 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.”
Paul 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.
This 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.
So 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.
Paul’s 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.”
This “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.
A 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”).
At 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.
His 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.
As 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?