I know, I'm like the last person on earth to see this film, which I cuddled up with my two cats to behold. In terms of methodology and form, the film was inspiring, sharp and genius. In terms of effect, the film is depressive yet sobering, imploring the audience to contemplate life itself and how human beings are often violently tossed about by its whims.
The filmmaker has a keen sense of the two-dimensionality of the medium: they (figuratively) take the reel and snip it in dozens of pieces, moving time forward and backward, showcasing scenes in a way that they catalyze each other's contents. First-rate acting and gritty scenery make this film really hard to avoid total absorption--I mean, you are there and you are curious as to what is next or what happened before. And the funny thing is, you don't really expect a happy ending or conclusion, you just want to be with these people and feel what is going on. This is all you are actually allowed to do. And in the end you find out that this is the whole point, to be alive through others who are going through very intense situations in order to stretch yourself.
Art should stretch you. And this is successful. Here goes a synopsis and evaluation. My 'issues' with the film are at the end, per usual (with the ones I like anyway).
The movie opens with Paul Rivers (by Sean Penn) sitting on the side of a bed, in the sunlight, smoking a cigarette as Cristina Peck (by Naomi Watts) sleeps. His hunched posture and pensive yet somewhat hopeless body language indicate that this is not the average morning after.
In a blink of an eye and a cut of the reel, we're introduced to Cristina's husband Michael (by Danny Huston) and two daughters ... basically the normalcy of her picket-fence life. Then in a flash she is discussing substance abuse in a group therapy session. Another scene later on invites you to her session of coke snorting in front of a mirror. You see this scene twice through the course of the movie.
Is this about drugs? You wonder.
Next we meet Jack Jordan (by Benicio Del Toro)--preaching to a stocking-cap-wearing kid in his late teens about the saving graces of Jesus Christ. The kid isn't taking it in and as he rejects the information, Jack becomes more and more infuriated ... because this kid is reflecting a part of him that is asleep, basically, if you want to break down the psychology of it.
The scenes revolve without any need for chronology, just flash after flash of these moments in life--in the lives of each character and then in their lives criss crossing. The effect of this is a much stronger dose of emotion as scenes become unhinged from the bigger picture and stand in their own rights, raw and present, without comforts of present or past. Like life itself.
Paul's scenes after that first one of him sitting by the bed, smoking, are at first a display of him being wasted and dreadfully ill. Connected to tubes, dying, first. Then, after a few scenes on other characters and events, we see him wheeling oxygen to a bathroom and trying to smoke a cigarette before his wife, Mary Rivers (by Charlotte Gainsbourg) gets home, but she smells it on him and she moves into scolding mother mode a bit, indicating that she is at the end of her rope, looking after someone who won't look after himself. We are introduced through the revolving doors of scenes to Paul and Mary's relationship as one that is not of love so much as codependence when he is sick and unrequited love when he gets better. Mary loves Paul. But Mary, as we are made aware early on, has a past that prevents her from conceiving without an operation. So she is working on that and with Paul ill is begging for his sperm so she can have his baby when he dies.
It's a quarter way into the movie and we're not sure what the illness is yet, we don't know what to make of Cristina because so far the scenes just show her with her kids, guiding them through a cake-baking session in their kitchen, snorting coke, hugging Paul yet sometimes happily married to her husband Michael. Michael's character is never quite fleshed out--he is featured in a phone message and in a few scenes running with their girls along the sidewalk. Other details are keenly avoided to condense the effect of the moments themselves--free from any distraction of what any of these people do for a living, where they are living (beyond small town or suburb in a four-season climate) or even their greater personalities beyond their responses to the events that take place.
The director, writer, editor, whoever, make keen decisions about the utility of details instead of details for details' sake. We know what kind of car Paul drives--a saloon car of a person set firmly in the middle class--and we know that he is fascinated by math and probably a teacher ... the corduroy jacket says teacher but again we are never sure because the only time math is mentioned is when he is explaining its wonders to Cristina, and leaping off of his fascination around numbers to explain that so many things in life must align to bring two people together. Yet it's not romantic, the feeling around this. It's real, it's touching but the romance is gone just as much as the hope has been dashed by other scenes we've seen. We can't buy into them happily ever after because, as we recall, Paul was so ill in some scenes, Mary was so desperate for his sperm in others, and at one point early on, he was on life support so ... Sure, he's a comfort, but we get the undeniable impression early on that he invites a lot of heartache into Cristina's life.
Jack evolves through rotating scenes into someone who has adopted the 'Jesus Saves' rhetoric based entirely on his feelings about his past and an attempt to free himself from a wild adolescence. An important few scenes show him struggling with his manager at a golf club to stay on staff as he is rejected for a tatoo on his neck. "What are you going to wear a scarf?!" his manager protests as he cans him. He can't seem to claw his way out of his past--and even the half-constructed idea of Jesus can't pull him out in the end.
Jack has two kids and a wife Marianne Jordan (by Melissa Leo)--all living in a lower-middle-class setup, trying to make ends meet. Early on, we see that Marianne finds his clinging to dogma a bit scary at times and is bewildered when he tries to bring the malformed ideals into his parenting approach--see him asking his son to hit his daughter so she can learn to turn her other cheek ... and see Marianne furiously grab the daughter like a lioness in protest of the male's ignorance.
So we're involved with these people by midway--seriously committed to what they are going through even if we're not quite sure what it is yet. And we trust it will be revealed. I want to say more but that would ruin it if you haven't had a chance to see it yet.
I will say this stuff though:
Watts displays her usual ability to go into the deeply troubled character who is twisting in the wind of her thoughts and feelings, bedraggled and tortured by them over the course of two hours. (She revisits the Mulholland Drive zone of her range.) Her response in a key scene to some bad news about her kids is pretty good.*
Del Toro displays a great range--he is charged here with playing someone wild who is trying to redeem his own existence as he pledges allegiance to dogma, eating it wildly from the jar procured by an intermittent mentor. Jack experiences something that interrupts this fanatical journey though, and as easily as he jumped all the way on the plastic, wabbling wagon of faith he has jumped off. He stands up and dusts off, a live wire who at once hates himself. Del Toro has clearly studied the self-effacing, self-destructing, self-loathing yet self-contained nature of this character. He makes my heart bleed for the struggle that Jack faces in just living a normal life when the cards were clearly against him from the start, somehow (again, we are never distracted by his past and somehow this lends to forgiveness because it doesn't take a genius to see that he was born onto a bumpy road).
The few issues I have with this are:
Cristina at one point doesn't want to press charges against Jack and seems totally depressed and unable to think of such a thing. But then, out of the blue, she becomes passionate about killing the guy and wants Paul to help her. Okay, I know that the circumstances around the original decision would render her totally depressed beyond action, but give us a scene in which she somehow envisions Jack or spends time thinking on him or having a conversation with Paul about him so that we get a bit of a signal that she could change her mind. The vignettes of her character as shown didn't really help me on the leap from complacence to murder.
Additionally, I wasn't quite convinced by her violent outburst at the news that Paul was in posession of something so dear to her. It seems that she was more rational than this, even in the depths of depression. Maybe she was on a coke high. But give us that scene a bit closer to the time he comes over to her house so we can expect this. Actually, I need that coke high a bit more consistently strewn because it's not clear when she is high, how often, and this has implications on whether or not that is her character or the coke ... I forget about the coke somehow and then her character's unpredictability seems baseless. Maybe I have a bad short-term memory but this is about timing and layering and mirages, isn't it? Dollop a little more coke in there for good measure I say.
In any case, the situations are unpredictable and you never quite guess how it fits together until the end. Like Babel, and Amores Perros--two films that employ the same type of editing--I care about the characters and am invested. Unlike these films though, I am deeply moved by the characters and affected by them and the larger message of the film. In fact, 21 grams is enormous and heavy and will stay with me a while as I digest and integrate its messages.
Some themes do not resolve themselves, indicating that life itself is not about resolution so much as process. A process that weighs 21 grams.
*The best performance I've seen around something happening to someone's kids goes to Michelle Pfeiffer in Deep End of the Ocean (as random as that made-for-tv movie is). In the case of Watts, I couldn't quite feel enough to cry with her. Pfeiffer makes me cry when she cries, she makes me want to scream when she screams--she injects you with her spirit ... and I think that is an ability an actor is born with or earns through some life experience.