21 GRAMS as a title has you think it must be about drugs, that hint buffered by the presence of Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benecio Del Toro, three intense actors known for plunging fearlessly into characters wracked by circumspect circumstance. They’re battered to smithereens in this punishing 2003 drama, for sure, but drugs are incidental; the title refers to the supposed weight of a human soul. *
The grief-scoured souls ripped open over 124 minutes in this jagged and fragmented story emerge from a screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga, under the direction of Alejandro González Iñárritu. The second part of their ‘Death Trilogy’, bracketed by the daunting traumatics of 2000’s Mexico-set Amores Perros and the international sprawl of the 2006 Babel, this one is fixed in the U.S. But the setting is incidental, as the Life is Misery scenario could play out anywhere on the map.
Ex-con ‘Jack’ (Del Toro) has found dogmatic religion as a way to try to keep him from slipping back into trouble. So much for a merciful God, as Fate cruelly puts Jack into a horrific accident that devastates the placid world of wife & mother ‘Cristina’ (Watts), whose warm family life had been a rescue from her own self-destructive past. That accident links Cristina and eventually Jack with ‘Paul’ (Penn), a seriously ill professor whose philandering, along with his (ironic) heart condition, has brought his marriage to the brink. Saying more takes away from engaging with (‘enjoying’ isn’t the right word) the plot, which is told in non-linear fashion, cross-cutting between the trio and time frames for much of the film until an ultimate coalescing into conjoined agony and resolution.
Reviews were strong, particularly for the acting; Watts at 35 scored her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and Del Toro, 36, received his second as Supporting Actor (having won that prize three years earlier on Traffic). At 42, senior partner Penn made do that year by taking Best Actor for Mystic River. That’s a showier part, but I think he’s actually better here, in a lower key. Watts and Del Toro have superb scenes, and the film has a definite power dynamic generated by the directorial finesse and the actors fine work. Yet the film’s pace and trick structure (confusing to some) and the acting prowess mask a rickety scaffold in the story and script. A seriously unlikely scenario in practical terms, it is brutally one-sided in terms of telling ‘truth’ about existence, as the writer and director deliberately avoid any light (as in The Rest of Life) to spoil their spoiling. The few scenes that have the characters engage in non-hurting ways—a party, flirting, dinner, sex—are so flimsily written and staged that it’s painfully clear they are just there as awkward bridges to the next round of anguish. As with the other (more resonant) entries in their impressive but depressing trilogy, director Iñárritu and writer Arriaga cheat Truth by piling such excess misery onto their people that it amounts to artificial, ‘artsy’ pain for the sake of it. You applaud individual scenes and salute the performers, but as to What it All Means, it’s a wash, no more or less ‘honest’ than a well-crafted boy-meets-girl rom-com. This must have been exhausting to make, as it is certainly draining to watch. The resolute bleak intimacy is one thing on a small screen; seeing it in a theater, walking out after, with an audience hushed and deflated, would be like crashing a funeral.
Happy exit crowds or no, it recouped its $20,000,000 outlay with a worldwide gross of $60,400,000, ranking 68th among the year’s releases internationally (114th in the States). With Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo, Danny Huston, John Rubenstein, Eddie Marsan, Clea DuVall and Paul Calderón.
* In 1907, one Duncan MacDougall, a Massachusetts physician, measured six patients at the moment of death, and used the results from just one to make his case, proposing that souls have a weight (21 grams, about 5 teaspoons of, say, sugar—or strychnine, if you’re not a nice dead person). Since this fell rather short of normal viable scientific analysis, the good doctor’s ‘findings’ were roundly dismissed. But the wishful idea lived on.