Director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu began his uplifting “Trilogy of Death” with his directorial debut of Amores Perros. Just three years later, he and writer of the entire trilogy Guillermo Arriaga completed the second installment of the trilogy: 21 Grams. In many ways, 21 Grams tries to emulate Amores Perros both in style and content. The strategy seems well-guided, for Amores Perros was a true masterpiece in the way it employed non-linear story-telling, showed important themes such as companionship, and brought seemingly unrelated stories together. Additionally, the action in the different stories constantly kept the viewer intrigued. In other words, the movie never dragged. Unfortunately, despite its clear attempts, 21 Grams fails to live up to Amores Perros in many aspects, most notably in overall intrigue and pace. It’s still impressive in its directing, non-linear nature and convergence of unrelated stories, though, and even surpasses Perros in acting, particularly of main characters Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, and Sean Penn.
Iñárritu is one of the few directors who dares to completely throw linear storytelling out the window while, at the same time, juggling different storylines. 21 Grams follows the stories of Jack Jordan (Del Toro), an ex-con, born-again Christian; Paul Rivers (Sean Penn), a man with a heart condition and one month to live; and Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts), a happy wife and mother of two. All three of their lives are brought together by Jack accidentally running over Christina’s husband and two daughters. The use of a car accident to bring the stories together is a not-so-subtle relation to Amores Perros and the downward spiral each character faces following the accident is comparable as well. Jack turns himself in to the police, attempts suicide in prison, and never can reconnect with his family or God following the accident while Cristina struggles to deal with her crippling loss and falls back into alcohol and drugs. Paul is the only one who benefits, receiving Cristina’s husband’s heart which prompts him to forge a relationship with Cristina.
Of course none of the development happens in real-time, and this adds to the intrigue of the plot itself. By showing quick bits from the past and future, Iñárritu keeps the viewer wondering for most of the movie how everything connects and how exactly these characters get from their pasts to their futures. However, after some time has passed and the viewer has seen a fair amount of both the past and the future, the movie begins to drag a bit. At this point, the storylines lack much action and the viewer has already seen enough of the ending to just want it to come already. This is rarely the case in Amores Perros as there is constant action and intrigue in each storyline.
Another cause for the story dragging is its lacking of the emotional punch it was seeking at times. The most important scene, the accident, is easily the most tragic scene in the movie and should be the most emotionally moving as Cristina in an instant loses her entire family. However, the audience has no attachment to Cristina’s family as we have not been introduced to them nor do we know anything about them.
The saving grace of the emotional impact of the accident, and in a lot of ways, the movie, is the acting. Naomi Watts truly embodies someone who has experienced a great loss, with little idea of how to carry on. Her acting allows the audience to see just how devastating the accident was for her and helps show one of the major themes of the movie: loss. Following the tragic event, she asserts that “life does not just go on”. And she is, in large part, correct; her life is forever changed, undoubtedly for the worse, after the accident.
Jack, too, has his life crumble around him as after the accident—which is portrayed well by Del Toro. For him, the cause is not loss, but rather regret. As a result of his regret, he loses his family too by first turning himself in and later leaving them all together. Loss and regret ruin both Cristina and Jack, neither has closure.
Their searches for closure bring them together as they both seek the same exact thing: Cristina wants Jack dead while Jack wants to die in the end. However, both end up alive, after Paul who has become caught up in it all, shoots himself—providing his own closure on his life that was doomed to a painful death soon anyways.
After all that has happened, the movie ends with its most hopeful scene: Cristina preparing for the baby she finds out she is pregnant with and Jack returning home to his family, all set to Paul’s posthumous monologue which functions in the same way as Lester Burnham’s monologue in American Beauty, it makes the viewer think, brings everything together, and explains the title too.
Fittingly, Paul concludes the film by saying: “we all lose 21 grams…at the exact moment of our death. Everyone. And how much fits into 21 grams? How much is lost?…How much did 21 grams weigh?” Perhaps Cristina and Jack lost their 21 grams long before their deaths, which is what their lives crumbling post-accident would suggest. Or maybe by the film’s end they are on their way to regaining some of what they had previously lost between Cristina’s pregnancy and Jack’s return to his family.
When looked at in that way, the movie does end on a quasi-hopeful not, similar to Amores Perros, while making the viewer reflect. What will fit in your 21 grams? How much will be lost? How much will your 21 grams weigh?