In the grand scheme of cinematic interconnectedness, 21 Grams is a consumable work of gritty self-congratulations. Coincidence, destiny and the mysterious 21 Grams (our soul?) are the central “ideas” that propel Alejandro González Iñárritu’s American feature debut as a freak accident leads three families to become forever intertwined. Iñárritu’s en-vogue cinematography (circa 2000) and award-winning cast lend an artistic gleam to the otherwise vapid play of spiritually insincere and exploitative tragedy. A tiresome example of early 2000s prestige filmmaking, 21 Grams holds the impressions of grand gestures without any of the substance.
Rodrigo Prieto’s competent cinematography uses the natural grit and grain of digital filmmaking to create the illusion of rawness. The colour scheme, in frank denial of the film’s melodramatic trappings, consciously subverts the Hollywood-branded artificiality, substituting glamour for drabness — coating the world in greys and blues, letting the camera drift with the shaky confidence of “real” world news. The illusion of this world, far more sinister than that of Douglas Sirk or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, lacks subtlety and does little to dismantle the status quo. Prieto’s talents nonetheless place him among the best directors of photography working today, however, it’s just that in this case, his images don’t elevate the material and only serve to further drive the nail of self-pity.
The inevitable takeaway of 21 Grams hinges on frustrating redundancy. While Iñárritu might pull at the right emotional strings, the film’s blindingly obvious proclamations feel meaningless. Are we meant to resonate deeply with the idea that the soul might exist? Does watching people suffer implicitly remind us that we should be thankful? Isn’t it terribly superfluous to suggest that our lives are all interconnected? As characters escape their uncomfortable wallowing (however briefly) and really live, Iñárritu seems uncomfortably detached from joy, bliss or beauty, as the film skimps and rushes through any bright moments, running towards the next scene of sadness or loss, as if the only valid emotions are the dark ones. Any moments that should be read as joyful (Sean Penn’s recovery dinner party or his light flirtations) seem tainted with awkward energy and a rigorous social performance that resembles something like real life. As if in a daze, happy moments are coated with insincerity and doubt, as if life only counts when you’re on the brink of death.
The inevitable romanticization of suffering in 21 Grams reaffirms rather than contradicts the current system. Rather than turning on a switch and facing the audience with difficult realities and, even more, difficult questions, we are left feeling content, satisfied with our lives and the way we live it — sure that in the case we need an awakening, destiny will provide it. Catharsis has value, and this film provides a heavy dose, but when the tears dry and the heaving cries settle, what is left behind? When you pull away the wandering, possessed performances and the oh-so-chic, non-linear storyline, are there any ideas hiding beneath the surface?
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.