21 Grams continues director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s exploration of faith, fate, and mortality that he so powerfully initiated in Amores Perros. And, as in Amores Perros, the plotting involves the destinies of three disparate principals linked by an automobile accident.
Amores Perros was placed in Mexico City and had a distinctly Latin flavor, while 21 Grams (filmed in English) takes place in an unnamed city in the United States. Filmed in Memphis, Tennessee and Albuquerque, New Mexico, the film gives no sense of a specific city, but rather the feeling of a drab place of low-rise urban sprawl and scrubby high desert; the sense of place is emotional, rather than geographic.The palette is dominated by saturated, sickly greens that accentuate the spiritual malaise which taints all the characters in the film. There’s judicious use of hand-held camera, achieving an immediacy and energy without the excess that induces vertigo.
Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) is a petty criminal, an alcoholic, an ex-con in a constant struggle to find his way to righteousness through evangelistic Christianity. His loyal wife, Marianne (Melissa Leo), and two kids are browbeaten with his obsessive religion; it’s as if he would drown out the temptations of evil by obsessing in his faith. "God knows when a single hair moves on your head," he declares.
Speeding in his truck, Jordan hits a father and two little girls–and doesn’t stop. He tells Marianne and says he’s going to turn himself in. She urges him not to: "Your duty is to your family." "My duty is to God," he replies.
Jordan’s victims were Michael Peck, an architect, and his two daughters. Christina Peck (Naomi Watts) is overwhelmed by her loss and in her grief slips back into the life of drugs and partying that she had escaped successfully in favor of family and stability. When at the hospital on the night of the accident, she signs an authorization for Michael’s organs to be donated.
Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a professor of mathematics who has had a heart transplant that is failing. It is he who receives Michael’s heart in a second attempt to save his life. Rivers’ marriage is an obviously troubled one; his estranged wife, Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is determined to overcome near impossible medical odds to have a child with him, even though his own prospects are grim. Rivers is determined to find out whose heart he has received; a detective ultimately leads him to Christina.
As in Amores Perros, too, the story is not told in straightforward exposition, but in a fragmented style, jumping back and forth in time and amongst the three intersecting plotlines, parceling out information until it all comes together in a devastating and irony-laden conclusion. The ultra-Baroque atmosphere of intensely emotional melodrama laced with violence and brimming with angst echoes the earlier film and improves upon it with a more tightly focused script that draws the strands together into a Gordian knot of inevitabilities.
The film is rich in imagery that both furthers its themes and accentuates the profound emotional crises that the characters experience. Rivers insists that the doctor show him the dysfunctional heart that was removed from his body, as if trying to make tangible the mysteries of life and death. Marianne (in a scene reminiscent of one in Mystic River) desperately tries to scrub the blood off of Jordan’s truck, tears of wretchedness streaming down her face.
Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga load the film with allusions to Christian mythology, especially in the character of Rivers–a man who found a second life with a new heart, a wife who wants to have his child though he cannot perform sexually and will not be there to parent the child. At one point there is a direct, if fleeting, image of stigmata. All of these characters have been challenged by fate and the immediacy of death, that moment in which bodyweight decreases by 21 grams, the presumed weight of the soul. Only Jordan has turned to faith–and his faith appears neither to have exorcised his demons nor to have led him to redemption. Inarritu draws powerful performances from all his actors, but most notably from Del Toro (The Pledge, Traffic) who is locked in a never ending, anguished battle between his own weaknesses and his desire to overcome them.