Hard to say whether I Recommend or Not. Great for conversation about the meaning of life. This is a powerful hard hitting story of intersecting lives written with depth and acted brilliantly by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro. It is an Existential movie that raises questions but gives no real answers, or shall we say, proposes a toothless redemption in a nihilistic world. Let me explain. It’s about an ex-con Jesus Freak (Benecio), who is trying to overcome his “bad luck” life by living a Christian life, rather alien to his nature. While speeding home, he accidentally kills a father and his two daughters and hides from the law. The father was also the husband of a woman played by Naomi Watts, whose life is now shattered by her loss. In the meantime, Sean Penn is dying of heart disease and a diseased relationship with an Englishwoman. Penn gets the heart of the father killed by Benecio in a transplant and seeks out his donor’s wife out of gratitude and curiosity, and of course, falls in love with Naomi and plans with her to kill the guy who killed her husband and kids, ala Benecio. Well, first off, it’s edited non-linearly to be oh so pomo. This hurts the film because it confuses the storyline which is strong enough on its own to carry interest. It’s okay for a gimmick like in Memento, and it worked well in Pulp Fiction, but the technique just adds unnecessary confusion here. And a gratuitous sex scene makes it difficult to recommend this one.
But I have a major issue with this movie. It is a story that attempts to portray Christianity as without any real transformative power in changing a life. Benecio is sincere in his attempt to be religious, but we can see that he is really just the same kind of man underneath. He is harsh on his kids and wife and others. He almost beats up a punk rebel for not himself repenting for the good life. What irony. He is portrayed as having no real victory in his life over his old ways, but more of an avoidance mechanism. And Benecio seems to just draw trouble to himself. His wife tells him that since he became a Christian, she doesn’t know him anymore, that he’s not himself, it’s like he’s been body snatched. So, his faith does not draw him closer to his family, but farther away. While Jesus did say that a family would be divided over such faith, he meant that those who are changed by their new natures of faith, truth and goodness are often rejected by family members unwilling to leave their own selfish wickedness. But the movie portrays Benecio as the one at fault here. His faith has not made him better, but has merely alienated him like a cult member. His unbelieving wife is more of a “real person” than he is. He comes to believe he is cursed by God with all his “bad luck.” He ends up leaving his wife and kid because he does not want to bring his cursedness upon them. He is not good enough for them. The filmmaker seems to consider Christianity a mere façade that tries to cover over an unchanged nature. Although it is very interesting that Benecio turns himself in because of his “duty to God” for the guilt of his crime, something 9 out of 10 movies would never even touch. For that I praise it. This has the potential of being a powerful victorious moment of moral character, but in the context and hands of the storytellers, seems more the negative pressure of guilt induced fear than godly repentance. His faith commitment is portrayed as alienating him from family rather than building his love for them. A truly godly man would weep over his love for his family, but do the right thing out of moral character. But Benecio yells at his wife and alienates her, storming out of the room.When Benecio goes to jail for the hit and run, he gives up on God because Jesus “betrayed him” for giving him all the trouble. But this is the conclusion of a long string of “bad luck” problems in his life. What Benecio neglects to learn is the lesson of Amadeus, Signs, Magnolia and Simon Birch, and that is that GOD IS IN CONTROL, not him. But instead, in this film, Benecio dumps God and goes back to his family, presumably as his old nature. Faith seems to be portrayed as a tool rather of avoidance or ignorance of true issues. Now, I have no problem with showing honest struggling with such issues, even the pain of a suffering life and a person who gives up on God because of his struggle. What I cannot forgive is the lack of understanding of the nature of true transforming power of Christianity. You see, the character who hates God for his suffering has the problem of CONTROL. Remember the story of Job? Rather instructive here, I would say. That is, what he needs to learn is that the very source of his problem is his unwillingness to accept God’s sovereign governance of his life. A humility and brokenness before one’s Creator, like in the movie Signs, where Mel Gibson learns that his rejection of God was selfish blindness to the wonders all around him. He merely had to open his eyes and yield to God’s greater wisdom. 21 Grams reminds me a lot of another indie movie, Levity. Similar idea of a man, Morgan Freeman, living a double life in the inner city as a Christian helping troubled youth. Another excellent story written well that fails to understand the true deliverance of Christianity. Faith becomes a cover for a double life. Why? Because, evidently, to these filmmakers, people do not change, or at least genuine transforming faith is not possible. Now, granted, there are some frauds or failures out there, I would not contest that. But my point is that these people who made these films obviously have not experienced or seen the kind of transformed lives that are in these inner city ministries. For every failure, there are a dozen successes of lives forever changed for the better because of faith. Hardened men humbled to the point of true repentance and a changed NATURE. Sure, they may still even have hard edges, but they are changed, truly changed, and people in their lives see the difference – FOR THE BETTER. I know, it happened to me. Okay, one qualification: I’d prefer movies like this that try to criticize Christianity, than ignore it all together, which most movies do. So for that much, I am grateful for this movie. At least it deals with something that is so important, it is a sin to ignore it.
I do have a caveat to my negativity though. When Sean Penn finds Benecio to kill him, he realizes he cannot kill him and fires the gun into the ground, telling Benecio to go and never come back. But Benecio tracks Penn down to his hotel room and tries to force Penn to go ahead and shoot Benecio. In other words, Benecio wants to die, accepts the wages of his sins. But Penn cannot and instead shoots himself in the shoulder to get it all to stop. Why? I don’t get it, other than a possible “atonement” theme. It is because of this event that Benecio ends his self-imposed exile of self flagellation and returns to his wife and kids. I’m willing to acknowledge that this might be a self sacrifice notion of substitutionary atonement, the innocent for the guilty, a man finding forgiveness in the sacrifice for another on his behalf, but the movie makes everything so guilt-ridden that it is hard not to see it all as a cynical retreat from true goodness.
At the end, the Penn character muses that 21 grams is the amount of weight that a person’s body loses when they die. The weight of a soul? He asks a bunch of questions but gives no hope of an answer: “How much is lost. Where do we lose 21 grams? How much goes with it? How much is gained? 21 grams. The weight of a stack of nickels, a hummingbird, a chocolate bar. How many lives do we live? How many times do we die? How much of life fits into 21 grams?” Well, these are very thoughtful questions, but the context seems to emphasize the insignificance of life and the inability to determine its value in light of the irony of life’s inequities and tragedies. Great questions. Great issues raised. Too bad no real hope is provided, and faith is discouraged as inadequate or ineffective. Contrast that with the redeeming nature of faith in the true Jesus Christ found in the Gospels and in Christian’s lives. Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). And, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and YOU SHALL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. “For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30)