'21 Grams' weighs heavy on viewer

by Mignon Lamia Mignon Lamia | 1/19/04 6:00am

After the success of "Amores Perros," many looked forward to the next collaboration between Mexican writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro Gonzolez Inarritu. Like the earlier work, their new film, "21 Grams," centers on a car crash, which brings together the three otherwise disparate lives of a dying math professor (Sean Penn), a suburban wife and mother struggling with a drug addiction (Naomi Watts) and a fanatically religious reformed ex-con.(Benicio Del Toro).

The movie jumps quickly from its few somewhat lighthearted scenes of little girls licking cake batter from their fingers and drinking milkshakes to those of jail cells, gun shot wounds, and bloodshed; from images of smiling faces to shots of the same features tightened in despair. As it artfully moves from scene to scene, revealing information of the events in pieces rather than in chronological order, the movie questions the assumed relationships between cause and effect.

The film's title stems from the idea that a human being loses exactly 21 grams of his body weight at the moment of death; the weight, the viewer is informed, of a candy bar or a hummingbird. But, the movie asks, what form does this 21 grams take as a person dies? What is lost and what is gained when the weight is transferred? Is it possible that with death there is no absolute loss, but only a perceived loss? Is it possible that what we as humans expend endless amounts of energy to prevent and postpone is not, in fact, a negative process at all, but an inevitable event from which equal amounts of goodness and badness arise in the world?

The story doesn't come down hard on any side of the arguments raised by these questions, but presents the viewer with a number of scenarios in which the answers are both relevant and frustratingly unclear as answers to such questions tend to be in reality.

The film is astonishing at times in its harsh realism. The hand-held cameras primarily used to shoot its low-lit scenes produce a grainy quality of the film and the images that often seems to have passed through a depressing yellow filter.

Though honest and effective performances by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro convey many truths, they are predominantly truths of death and suffering, descriptive of a world set to an increasingly anguished soundtrack in which happiness is short-lived and despair is everywhere. While it recounts what is decidedly not a heartwarming story, the movie is certainly heartfelt and reflective of genuine efforts by writer, director and actors alike.