At the beginning of January, Empire Magazine re-published their 500 greatest-movies-of-all-time list and challenged the readership to watch them all in one year. That is categorically (going by my record here) not going to happen. But it’s worth mentioning that 21 Grams is the third film this month to fall under that grouping. The first two being The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Twelve Monkeys.
With a heavyweight cast of Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts, 21 Grams is a ferociously vivid tale of grief, loss and redemption. The structure is as fragmented as the characters’ lives, weaving between past and present with a tempo that demands your unwavering attention. It was actually shot in chronological order, then deftly jumbled up to eke out a narrative that’s straightforward in content, but profoundly complex in feeling and impact.
Sean Penn is a college professor dying of heart disease, still copping a sneaky fag and listening, grudgingly, to his wife’s plans for IVF and (the increasing likelihood of) a post-mortem pregnancy. Benicio Del Toro is a born-again Christian, an ex-con who spends his time volunteering for the church youth group, delivering his own version of fire and brimstone to cynical teens and his own, terrified, family. Naomi Watts is a privileged housewife with an architect husband and two adorable young daughters, whose life is about to take a sudden turn for the worse.
The event that splinters the lives of these three characters, at the same time as fusing their paths together, is never shown on screen. The closest we get is an extended shot of a guy blowing leaves on a peaceful Autumn day. The camera lingers, demonstrating how much tension can be generated with very little action. It’s masterful storytelling, with performances to match. There are no weak links in the central trio – each character is compelling, flawed and laid bare by their actions. Their disjointed relationship is well served by the structure, offering fleeting contact, taut flashbacks, and snatches of insight that builds up to a coherent and devastating whole.
The one slightly off-note is Charlotte Gainsbourg as Penn’s pregnancy-fixated wife. It’s not a fault of the performance, more of a characterisation that suffers from an “Emily-from-Friends” stereotype of a humourless English bitch. It’s a shame – it’s the only role that feels like it’s a function of the plot, rather than a depiction of a real, rounded person.
This is a film that tears away the hypocrisy and facade of people’s everyday existence, questioning the values by which we lead our lives, and skewering the assumptions that make us who we are. It stays with you, as flickers of memory and fragments of reality, ultimately life-affirming as the characters finally make a kind of peace with themselves. If that sounds a pretentious load of guff, then go and watch the film.