a weighty 21 Grams

I went to see 21 Grams last night.

I appreciated the film (notice: I said “appreciated,” not enjoyed). For me, it was a gritty but honest film about the culture of death in which we are living, an effective expose of the sort of “freedom” championed by Planned Parenthood… effective because it presented that notion of freedom without makeup and in a way that was not heavy-handed.

I will say that I didn’t trust the movie for the first 40 minutes. I didn’t think the movie understood Benecio del Toro’s character until 45 minutes into the film. But as soon as that was established, and as soon as I forgot the weak acting at the very beginning by Naomi Watts, I was able to settle in and appreciate the richly nuanced and – to my mind – honest portrayal of the characters. I felt that some of the performances were Oscar-worthy (particularly Sean Penn’s). The characters in this film are both multi-dimensional and eerily consistent. For example, you get the sense that the writers understand how codependency can actually be a mask for narcissism. For me, the movie had an intelligent ambiguity to it – not the sort of ambiguity that comes from a relativistic worldview, but the sort that comes from taking the human condition seriously.

This movie succeeded for me where American Beauty failed – it seemed to me that American Beauty wanted to be unrelentingly honest about sin, but then decided it couldn’t take the weight of that decision and decided to tell a lie to glamorize it. I felt duped when I left the theater after seeing American Beauty, and the following quote from Flannery O’Connor helped me to understand why: There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.

This is not the case with 21 Grams. If you’re looking for a feel-good movie, or a movie in which you have a character you can champion as a hero, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you didn’t appreciate Dead Man Walking, you probably won’t enjoy this film; you need to be able to stomach a film that forces you to examine sin without its typical Hollywood makeup. If, on the other hand, you want to contemplate soberly the grim realities of our world through a lens that is moral without being moralizing, you’ve come to the right place.

So does 21 Grams give us the sense that — to borrow Flannery O’Connor’s notion — grace is being offered? I think I detected several moments that gave us this sense… in each case, where the offer of grace was rejected with some deliberation. For me, they were effectively disturbing, and the weight of guilt haunted the film. Without giving away too much, I will say that Leo and Del Toro have a scene that evokes the same feelings as Lady Macbeth’s famous “out damn spot” speech. For me, the film effectively captures this tragic sensibility in a modern tale.

What will this film mean for our culture? Not much, I fear. I am reminded of the line from T.S. Eliot in Burnt Norton: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Nearly half of the audience attending this matinee performance was laughing at the most disturbing moments of the film – not laughing at bad production values, or at poor characterization or silly dialogue, but nervous laughter I cannot quite explain… perhaps laughing to create distance at those moments when the action on the screen was shining too much light on our disordered hearts. It felt like the sort of laughter one hears from people who feel the need to run back into the shadows. This is too bad – to me, this is a movie that succeeds at the sort of catharsis achieved in the ancient Greek tragedies. But in spite of this film’s intense, compelling, and well-motivated portrayal of sin, I have a feeling many people may walk away unmoved. This doesn’t speak to a weakness of the film, but to the weakness of our nature, and to our conditioning in a culture that has hypnotized us with the messages “your choices are your own, your ‘values’ are your own, your freedom is your own, do what you want with it, and that’s the only thing that matters.” I am not sure that tragedy works anymore when we live in a culture that has effectively sanitized us into believing that we can no longer speak about Right and Wrong. I think we have forgotten the Greek sensibility about sin: that hamartia literally means “missing the mark.” Sin has instead become merely a label created by intolerant religious freaks in our midst. (Of course this is ridiculous. No honest person who participates in archery and misses the bullseye turns around to say, “I meant to hit the hay bale instead.” But this is what our culture does. Okay, enough of my soapbox already.)

My hope is that the movie might nudge our consciences toward admitting that we can’t escape a moral framework, in much the way Albert Camus did in his novel The Stranger. Though we may believe in a do-it-yourself ethic (and, in a self-contradictory way, seek solace in being victims rather than free agents), we still experience ourselves living within a moral landscape larger than ourselves and, regardless of our creed, we are not exempt from navigating this landscape with our choices. I think the movie 21 Grams knows this and is able to preach this message without approaching the pulpit.

I do have a couple of criticisms of the film: One has to do with the structure, and the other has to do with some gratuitous nudity / sexual intercourse. Regarding the structure: I felt the film jumped back and forth in time in a way that was unnecessary. If the filmmakers chose this structure in order to hold our attention, I would argue that they didn’t need this. If it was done to place the viewers inside the consciences of the characters – slowly admitting their guilt to themselves, as in Dead Man Walking – I would say that this movie did it much less effectively. If it was done in order to relieve the writer of the burden of believable character arcs or consistent story development, I will say that it succeeded. But I don’t get the sense that the writers of this story needed any cover, so I am puzzled by the use of the “back and forth” convention. Regarding the nudity: nothing really new here… it is the familiar practice of throwing in some erotic material in a violating manner for actor and audience, particularly in the case of Naomi Watts’ character.

So I give it three out of four stars… but just be clear, this is not a family film. It earns its R rating, not so much for the sex and violence, but for sitting us down squarely in the midst of a culture of death without deodorant – and the stench is weighty indeed.

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