21 Grams

21 Grams (2003)

Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Written by: Guillermo Arriaga

Starring: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio del Toro

 

21 Grams focuses on the aftermath of a fatal accident that brings Cristina (Watts), Paul (Penn), and Jack (del Toro) together in tragic fashion. All three of these characters bring a cargo hold’s worth of baggage into the film, but when Cristina’s husband and daughters are killed in a hit-and-run accident, their lives begin to spiral out of control and intersect as they circle the same drain. Paul, who is in the final stages of a terminal illness, is temporarily saved when he is transplanted Cristina’s husband’s heart, leading him to seek her out and begin a relationship. He becomes dragged into Cristina’s quest to get revenge on Jack, an ex-con who had been born again and was attempting to turn his life around when he caused the accident that killed Cristina’s family. Through these three characters, and their intertwining tale of redemption and revenge, Inarritu and Arriaga explore themes of death, grief, responsibility, and faith.

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The film’s theatrical release was in November 2003, the beginning of my senior year of high school, although I’m sure it probably never made its way to the small town in West Virginia where I grew up. My first introduction to 21 Grams (and to most of the films I will write about here) was on DVD. The late high school years were the beginning of my development into a true cinephile, fueled by the easy access to anything I could imagine on home video, and the relative low cost of collecting DVDs at the time. My tastes at the time were somewhat eclectic; my collection was comprised mostly of classic American cinema (heavy on the American New Wave), 1990s independent cinema (heavy on Tarantino and the Coens), kung-fu movies, horror, and a scattering of basic contemporary “indie” cinema. My tastes in that last category could basically be described as enjoying films with non-linear narratives (Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), maudlin viewpoints or mopey protagonists (American Splendor, Punch Drunk Love), narrative synchronicity (Magnolia), or some combination thereof. I also had a great fondness for Focus Features releases at the time, so even without having seen more than a trailer, I confidently purchased 21 Grams sometime in the spring of 2004.

That spring and summer I know I must have watched this film a half dozen times. I watched it alone, I watched it with friends, with my girlfriend. At that time, it’s quite likely that I might have listed 21 Grams among my favorite films, right alongside Fight Club and Trainspotting. 21 Grams distilled so many of the generic tropes and narrative tics that I was fond of into their perfect form. Its story is presented in a jumble of scenes, jumping backward and forward in time, requiring and rewarding close watches as the interconnections between these characters are developed and revealed. The titular 21 grams refer to the weight that a person loses upon death, the weight of the soul leaving the body. The film’s central thematic conceit, what is the true weight of a life, or of a death, seemed like a puzzle to be solved. At that time, 21 Grams was certainly my favorite film featuring Naomi Watts, and I already owned Mulholland Drive, a film that is undoubtedly one of the greatest of the 21st century and probably my favorite film of all time now.

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I say all of that, to now say something that is probably obvious at this point: somewhere along the way, my strong affection for 21 Grams soured. I moved to Pittsburgh in the fall of 2004 to study film, and over the course of my first year living away from home, and my first year truly immersing myself in a culture of watching films seriously, my tastes began to develop and change. I split a Blockbuster movie pass with my friend, Brian, and we abused the Hell out of it, sometimes renting three movies a night from the Blockbuster on Forbes Avenue. I was so busy exposing myself to new ideas that I rarely went back to many of the DVDs that I had brought to college with me, often treating them like comfort food, and 21 Grams was certainly lost in the shuffle. I mentioned it earlier alongside Fight Club and Trainspotting as a favorite of the time, and those stayed relevant much longer because of their status as “new classics,” and their visceral, fun styles. The languid pace, morbid tone, and philosophical bent of 21 Grams didn’t lend itself to providing relief in my more serious film schedule, so I always passed it up.

Over the years, and without another viewing since 2004/2005, I began to think of 21 Grams as being built around a somewhat trite formal conceit, its non-linear structure, and using that to prop up an otherwise flimsy narrative overwrought with philosophical import. I felt that its twists were unearned. After so many viewings, its revelations were trite. I suspect that that opinion initially formed after being largely unimpressed by Inarittu’s follow up film, Babel. That film is much of the same, exploring the same grand philosophical themes of 21 Grams through a more linear, but globe spanning, narrative. The failures of Babel to break new ground, and my general distaste for the film over the years, confirmed my bias against 21 Grams, and as such I hadn’t watched it in over a decade until it came time for this project.

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Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I did like 21 Grams. There were times when the film felt a bit self-important, but I had forgotten just how great the performances from all of the lead actors were, and that really helped to make up for some of the overly weighty dialogue. Watts’s performance feels like an exposed nerve, and del Toro is totally convincing as Jack, whose loss of faith after killing Cristina’s family was the most interesting character arc in the film for me. I had also forgotten the film’s visual style, which evokes a sense of total despair as the characters’ lives unravel. The visual palate, alternating from cold, blue interiors, to sun-bleached, yellow exteriors in the desert, is striking. While his later work has gained him critical accolades, I feel that 21 Grams may be Inarittu’s best film, and I think it is certainly the best of his early career triptych, formed by his partnership with writer Guillermo Arriaga. For me, personally, Inarittu’s films have provided diminishing returns since 21 Grams, as he has become a visually masterful director, who increasingly leans on his own screenplays to the detriments of the films overall. Perhaps another multi-film partnership with a talented screenwriter could push Inarittu away from being such a technical wizard and back into making more rewarding, and well-rounded films. While it certainly doesn’t hold up to the early regard that I had upon first seeing it at 18, 21 Grams really does have some pretty impressive performances and the groundwork of Inarittu as a visual auteur of the cinema is apparent in its style. But, like much his later work, the narrative is never as compelling as the impressive style, and the film’s themes and philosophy are both too broad and too vague. I likely won’t go back to 21 Grams anytime soon, but I was glad to have the opportunity to reevaluate it.

Introduction

Webster’s dictionary defines a cinephile as “a devotee of motion pictures.” I first learned this portmanteau when I was 19 years old, in college, beginning my serious study of film. At that time, it made sense to me that I must be a young cinephile; I was in love with movies and had a voracious appetite for consuming them. I had long been a devotee, and I had spent much of my free time and money in high school going to the movies, collecting DVDs, and viewing films with friends late into the night. Like many passions of youth, my love for motion pictures burned hot, and my entry into a formal academic setting where the viewing and study of films was considered very serious business only served to stoke those flames even further. Now watching three films a day was not only not frowned upon, it was encouraged as research.

My desire to study films, and to make films of my own, led me to Pittsburgh, PA, but it was born in my hometown of Charleston, WV. I was a part of a small clique in my school who were obsessed with movies and pop culture. We were equal opportunity nerds when it came to the movies, as enamored with Taxi Driver and The Godfather as we were with Dumb and Dumber and The Chinese Connection. We would watch our favorites over and over and over again, memorizing lines of dialogue and details of shot construction, beginning an informal education in the visual language of the movies. Our curriculum was dictated only by personal taste and by the availability of particular films on home video. We amassed large collections of DVDs and VHS tapes, trading with one another and spreading the movies like secrets.

My personal collection became fairly large during the early part of the 21st century. Over the years, I purchased hundreds of movies, and watched hundreds more. I never thought of myself as a collector, because I didn’t hold much inherent value in the physical media. I was only interested in collecting the stories contained therein. As a result, there was never much rhyme or reason put into what might be added to my personal collection. I liked what I liked, and during that time I was primarily interested in consuming as much cinema as possible as often as possible. However, as access to different sources of media developed, adding new discs to my collection seemed less and less important. I was an early adopter to Netflix’s disc service, and collecting little red envelopes began to supplant buying movies of my own. A few years later, as streaming services became my primary way of engaging with and viewing films and media, my DVD collection became nearly ornamental, a well-organized display of my personal taste choices.

There was also a period of my life during which I completely disengaged from watching movies altogether. After four years of undergraduate film school, and a brief stint in graduate school, I had become seriously burnt out. I felt the need to almost totally unplug myself from that life and that meant largely ignoring my previous interest in movies. During my mid-twenties I buried myself in work, occasionally going to the theater, but rarely engaging critically in the way that I had in film school. I stopped writing entirely. I tried to shake this rust off in 2012, starting a blog that I kept sporadically updating for about half a year, writing short reviews and analysis of both contemporary and classic films. Though I wasn’t as successful as I had hoped in keeping the blog going regularly, I was able to use it as a stepping stone to working on several longer, more involved essays over the next year. I also began going to the theater more frequently and, gradually, my interest in cinema in general began to be reignited.

Since that time, my engagement with the movies has been consistent, even if my engagement with writing about the movies has been less so. I have thought about several potential long and short term writing projects that I could put my mind to, but for various reasons they’ve never been able to come to fruition. Often a lack of free time would derail an attempt to write an essay, and other projects would often take precedence as I started taking on new and different professional and social responsibilities. Sometimes I lacked for a concrete source of inspiration for a writing project, and a sort of stasis would set in. I realized a few months ago, however, that the solution to this problem might have been right under my nose all along. As I sat at my desk one evening, I looked to the shelves where my DVD collection was held, so many of them untouched in years, and I realized I had a previously untapped source of inspiration. I made up my mind to work my way through each disc organized alphabetically on my shelves, from 12 Monkeys to Zodiac, and write a short essay about each one. I was interested to find out how some of these movies that I hadn’t watched in a decade would hold up. I was curious to see if I could remember the story of how each one came to be in my collection, and why it seemed important enough to have stayed with me for all these years.

So, I hope to use this space to release these essays as I work my way through my collection, and with over 200 movies this will certainly be a long term project. My desire is to have one new essay written each week exploring a new film, and my relationship to it, both now and then. Some of these movies I have seen so many times that I could probably write my essays from memory, some of them I have seen only once or twice, and I’m sure there are a couple lingering around that I may have never gotten around to seeing at all. I’m hoping that presenting these films alphabetically, without any thought to chronology (either of their release or of their introduction into my life) or theme, there may be some interesting juxtapositions or that the films may enlighten each other in some way through an unpredictable pairing. There are already some stories that I can’t wait to tell about some of these films and their roles in my life. Most of all, I’m excited to get back to writing about movies on a regular basis, and I can’t think of a better way to do that than to revisit some of the more formative films of my cinephilia.