21 02 2018

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21 Grams PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
11 11 2004

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

21 GramsMelodrama is the daddy of all film genres. The cruel death of loved ones, tortured relationships, revenge, guilt and anguish have been the staples of cinematic fare since D W Griffith. Lately maybe we've learned to take things more coolly.

Understatement, a little humour, detachment seem to bring horrors closer to home for us now, but 21 Grams, from Iñárritu, director of the ferocious Amores Perros, is a return to the full-strength stuff. The title refers to the fact that, allegedly, the human body loses 21 grams at the point of death. The weight of the soul? But there is little abstract musing on death here, rather a despairing howl on the cruelty of the human condition.

i'm mad on her!Where the film brings a modern slant is by telling the story in a non-chronological way, so that we come only gradually to understand its twists and horrors and ironies. Because the unravelling of the plot is a great part of the experience of the film, it's difficult to say much about the storyline, save that it concerns three couples, whose lives become chewed up into a tragic, commingled mush in the maw of a malign fate (well, we are talking melodrama here...). Sean Penn is an academic with fatal heart disease, Benicio del Toro a reformed, born again ex con with what might be called 'unresolved conflicts', and Naomi Watts a happily married mother of two little girls. A dreadful accident brings them together. Tell yourself the story line in a linear way afterwards and you'll boggle at the thinness and implausibility.

eyes shutSean Penn and Benicio del Toro are both masters at portraying guilt - the former visibly drying up inside, the latter oozing it at every pore and duct so that he seems filmed over with it. Watts turns in a bravura performance as a woman turned inside out by suffering. The film was shot mostly with hand-held camera, giving harsh intimacy to the faces and a raw texture to the locations, as Penn and Watts move from the comfortable sheen of their middle class surroundings to a dingy motel in the badlands, mirroring their internal disintegration.

hong kong fueyI wanted to like this film. I really did. I don't know why I felt no real empathy with the characters, why I felt mostly unmoved by the anguish, and why in the end I was just waiting for it all to stop. It's maybe bad luck for 21 Grams that I saw it within days of Elephant, a crystal clear, totally devastating poem on human mortality. And it's maybe better to leave the audience to dig into their own hearts to find their responses to the unbearable than batter them into submission.


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