'21 Grams': The Chaotic Order Of the Universe

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Under its seemingly chic despair, its celebration of squalor and pain, its violence, its willfully skewed narrative scheme, "21 Grams" turns out to be a powerful relic from a bygone age: It's really a "miracle of faith" movie, as straight-ahead religious as "Song of Bernadette."

It argues that, yes, God has a plan, clever and meaningful, and that coded in all human actions are messages from above. Like most works of evangelical intensity, it works toward revelation, a moment of clarity when mere humans can at last spy the grandeur, the intricacy, the genius of God's plan.

All this in a movie with Sean Penn? Hard to believe, I know, but that's what makes the thing so utterly engrossing -- even if you are, as I was, lost for the first half-hour.

The director, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu (he broke through on "Amores Perros" in 2001), avoids chronological order as if it were a plague. His narrative model is instead the mosaic: He picks moments from the stories of his three protagonists by devious plan, at different parts of their lives, in different states of grace. The literal-minded will have trouble figuring out how, say, Naomi Watts can be a super-perky, proficient suburban mom in one scene and a wasted, blowzy, drugged-up near-zombie in the next; or how Penn can be the very image of academic propriety in one sequence, complete to tweeds and irony; in the next a man in intensive care with tubes and pipes and drips and monitors keyholed into every spare inch of flesh; and in still another a disreputable, upchucking gunman, sitting by an empty swimming pool with a Smith & Wesson in one hand and a look of self-loathing crunching up his face.

But by far the most interesting character is the prime mover who unites Watts's Christina and Penn's Paul: Jack Jordan, played by Benicio Del Toro, is an ex-con who's been born again and given himself over to the Lord in a storefront church, where he works as an assistant to a stern mentor of a minister who instructs him forcefully: "Jesus knows where every hair on your head is." That statement may seem absurd to conventional minds, but the argument of the movie turns out to be: Jesus knows where every hair on your head is.

Jack's problem is that he is, well, Jack. He has given himself to Christ but he cannot control the ready instinct to violence, to sloppiness, to indulgence, to jailhouse tattoos as emblems of the dangerous-outsider culture that made him a criminal in the first place. It is he who authors the movie's central event, by which all the characters index themselves.

One night, driving home in a hurry after having lost his day job -- this is the inciting event, but by the film's narrative strategy it is not revealed until the halfway point -- he strikes and kills three pedestrians, a man and his two daughters in a suburb, then flees. Christina is the mother and wife of those who died; Paul, terminally ill, becomes the recipient of the heart from her husband's chest.

One can certainly see why such a trio of powerhouse performers was attracted to this project. For actors, the movie is pure candy, a succession of gigantic actorly moments to be painted in the brightest of primary colors: grief (Christina gets the news), remorse (Jack realizes what he has done), anguish (Paul attempts to understand why he has been spared a sure death from heart failure at the expense of three innocent lives), as well as such other fun things as drug addiction (Christina turns junkie in the aftermath), vengeance (Paul gets that gun and goes hunting to settle the score and establish justice) and bitterness (having given his life to Jesus, Jack cannot understand why Jesus punished him by putting him behind the wheel of a truck that struck three innocent people).

So the movie is right on that thin membrane between pathos and bathos. It has so many Big Emotional Moments, so many tears are shed, so many screams are screamed, that it's almost, but not quite, funny. Two things redeem the awful lugubriousness of the project: First is the brilliance, even the fearlessness, of the argument, and second is the raw honesty of the production.

In some sense, "21 Grams" -- the title, incidentally, refers to the weight that a body eerily loses at the instant of death, that could be construed as the weight of the soul -- is a pure theological argument, playing two theories of grace off each other. Jack's quest is literal, biblical, a rack of discipline and punishment (he regularly abuses his children out of a disciplinarian's hunger, at one point striking his son while bellowing, "No fighting in this house!"). Paul's is more modern, being driven not by formal engagement with religion as structure and community but more as a philosophical quest, for a meaning to life, specifically his own. He has to find out why the price was paid to ensure his survival and insists, to himself at any rate, that there is a reason behind it. (He is a mathematician, a professional quester for secret patterns.)

Meanwhile he has fallen out of sympathy with his own wife, Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who has some desperate need to bear his child. Paul -- his anger is puzzling -- does not want to procreate, possibly because he has not yet found his meaning or if there is any meaning at all. If there's not, what's the point of adding another victim to the chaos?

As these two views work themselves out, it becomes clear that the director prefers Paul's more instinctive quest to Jack's dogmatic insistence, but I was struck by the fairness of the inquiry. Movies about born-agains are almost always front-loaded with contempt. It's so easy to make fun of them, with their earnestness, their literalism, their obsession with Scripture, their utter rigidity, but Gonzalez Iñarritu never does. The movie is too relentlessly honest for that.

Gonzalez Iñarritu, who directs from a script by his colleague Guillermo Arriaga (who also wrote "Amores Perros"), looks at these folks unflinchingly, with a brilliant eye for detail, as he puts together the pattern that becomes their lives and their destiny. We flash forward and backward in time -- you must be patient -- as we basically come to understand the before, the during and the after of the intersection of these three lives and what it comes to. The movie isn't pretty. Rodrigo Prieto's photography, grainy and bled of color, conjures up the scabby sourness of a certain anti-idealized version of reality.

And parts of the movie are hard to take. I have no need to watch a mother receive news that her family has been capriciously wiped out, but the film gave me no choice.

"21 Grams" begins with an image of birds in an urban landscape, suddenly breaking into helter-skelter flight. That's Gonzalez Iñarritu's metaphor for chaos, for the possibility that life is random atoms splattered this way and that by other random atoms. That, too, is the narrative strategy: a confusing jumble of seemingly random scenes, beyond the capacity of human organization. When the accident happens, the director doesn't picture it directly. Rather he watches as a stricken witness, a maintenance man, drops his leaf-blower and runs to help the tragedy offscreen. The leaf-blower falls into the leaves and sends them swirling; it's another image of cruel randomness. But by movie's end, the birds have returned to their roosts. That's the miracle it depicts -- order has been restored.

And the movie itself is a miracle: tough, smart, relentless, provocative and, above all, serious.

21 Grams (125 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for emotional intensity, sex and violence.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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