Remember how shocked a lot of us were when we first saw Birdman? Well, it wasn’t just because Birdman featured an underwear-clad Michael Keaton levitating in his dressing room. And it also wasn’t just because Birdman was edited to make it appear as if it had been filmed in one continuous take (though, to be honest, I would argue that the whole “one continuous shot” thing added little to the film’s narrative and was more distracting than anything else.) No, the main reason we were shocked was that Birdman was directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and, when we thought of an Inarritu film, we thought of something like 2003’s 21 Grams.
It’s not easy to explain the plot of 21 Grams, despite the fact that 21 Grams does not tell a particularly complicated story. In fact, if anything, the plot of 21 Grams feels like something that either Douglas Sirk or Nicholas Ray could have come up with in the 50s. Indeed, the plot of 21 Grams is far less important than the way the Inarritu tells the story. (In that, the dark and grim 21 Grams does have something in common with the arguably comedic Birdman.)
Inarritu tells his story out of chronological order. That, in itself, is nothing spectacular. Many directors use the same technique. What distinguishes 21 Grams is the extreme to which Inarritu takes his non-chronological approach. Scenes play out with deceptive randomness and it is left to the viewer to try to figure out how each individual scene fits into the film’s big picture. As you watch 21 Grams, you find yourself thankful for little details like Sean Penn’s beard, the varying lengths of Naomi Watts’s hair, and the amount of sadness in Benicio Del Toro’s eyes because it’s only by paying attention to those little details can we piece together how once scene relates to another.
The film tells the story of three people whose lives are disrupted by the type of tragedies that the pre-Birdman Innaritu was best known for.
Sean Penn plays Paul Rivers, who is a sickly mathematician who desperately needs a new heart. He’s married to a Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who devotes all of her time to taking care of him and is frustrated by Paul’s fatalistic attitude towards his condition. When Paul does finally get a new heart, he gets a new existence but is haunted by the fact that it has come at the expense of another man’s life.
Christina Peck (played by Naomi Watts) is a former drug addict who is now married with kids and who appears to have the perfect life. That is until her husband and children are tragically killed and, in her grief, Christina falls back into her old lifestyle. The formerly stable and happy Christina becomes obsessed with the idea of getting revenge for all that she has lost. Naomi Watts was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for her work here. Her vulnerable and emotionally raw performance holds your interest, even when you’re struggling to follow the film’s jumbled chronology.
And finally, there’s Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro). Like Christina, Jack is a former drug addict. Whereas Christina used the stability of family life to help her escape from her demons, Jack uses his new-found Christianity. And just as Christina struggles after she loses her family, Jack struggles after tragedy causes him to lose his faith. Like Paul, he struggles with why he’s been allowed to live while other have not. Del Toro was nominated for an Oscar here and, like Watts, he more than deserved the nomination.
(While Sean Penn was not nominated for his performance in 21 Grams, he still won the Oscar for his role in Mystic River.)
21 Grams is a powerful and deeply sad film, one that will probably shock anyone who only knows Inarritu for his work on Birdman. 21 Grams is not always an easy film to watch. Both emotionally and narratively, it’s challenging. But everyone should accept the challenge.