Three messages of hope
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Date: 12 March, 2004

Sean Penn plays Paul Rivers in 21 Grams. Photo: Icon


'The focus on each character is deliberately fragmented.'

Catherine von Ruhland says that Alejandro Inarriot's film 21 Grams offers light at the end of all tunnels

Three people are on the cusp of a new life. Dying Paul (a thoughtful Sean Penn) needs a heart transplant to survive. Ex-con Jack (a bullish Benicio del Toro) has given his life to Jesus but seems trapped by past choices. A distraught Cristina (an intense Naomi Watts) clings to her memories of the husband and two young daughters mown down by a car.

As with director Alejandro Inarrito's fiery debut Amores Perros, all three stories are entwined, brought together by a brutal car smash. But it takes at least half an hour to make any connections between the disparate stories. The focus on each character is deliberately fragmented.

Time flips disconcertingly back and forwards so we're not altogether sure about cause and effect. At the film's beginning, we find ourselves merely aware that these people exist and that their life journeys are presumably worth following even though we have little idea where we might be taken.


The jigsaw puzzle nature of Guillermo Arriaga's script demands and rewards audience concentration. We notice the swarthy clamminess of Paul's skin because we know what is to become of him. Our order-thirsty minds try to make sense of the script to work out what is sure to happen.

But still the film surprises and forces questions. Are we being shown recovering addict Cristina's former drug-taking before she settled down, or a grief-stricken return to her old ways since her bereavement?

When Paul tracks down the widow of his new heart's donor he falls for her which as a plot device used by lesser hands (David Duchovny and Minnie Driver have been in such a movie) screams crass, contrived made-for-telly romance. This thoughtful character study portrays a man inching toward some kind of understanding of what is happening to him.

Fortunately, 21 Grams does not share the detachment of Gus van Sant's similarly tangled yet chilly Elephant. Its very title makes that clear. 21 grams is the weight humans apparently lose on the point of death. Some might dismiss it as air leaving the lungs for the final time. The more spiritually-inclined suggest it is an individual's very soul.


What Inarrito seems to be suggesting is the worth of every one of us wherever on life's path we might happen to be. Nobody is beyond redemption. The good can make bad moves by choice or circumstance yet still be rescued, the bad can turn a corner and walk another way. We don't know whom we might meet and what will change our lives.

'God even knows when a single hair moves on your head' explains a brooding Jack even as his wife struggles to recognise her husband as a Christian convert, preferring his drunken former self. Even the number Cristina ('Life does not simply go on,' she cries), experiences a capacity for new life.

Inarrito has claimed that 21 Grams depicts a never-ending cycle of people being saved then damned. But his view of interconnecting lives and largely hopeful conclusions in fact suggests that while there may be trouble ahead, there is certain to be hope some time coming too.

21 Grams, certificate 15, directed by Alejandro Inarrito, starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro