21 Grams. The weight of a stack of nickels. The weight of a bar of chocolate. The weight of a hummingbird. Or perhaps, the weight of our soul! Yes, you heard it right. In 1907, Dr Duncan MacDougall published a paper in the Journal Of The American Society Of Physical Research, claiming that a human body loses exactly 21 grams at the precise moment of death, thereby deducing that human beings indeed have a soul. The paper has since been discredited, but the myth has lived on.
It is based on this premise that the 2003 American drama ‘21 Grams’ was conceived. Starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, the story is told in a hyperlink non-linear format, where the past, present and future of three seemingly unrelated characters, converge and coalesce towards each other. Helmed by the acclaimed Academy Award winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu (‘Birdman‘ and ‘The Revenant‘), ‘21 Grams’ interweaves several plot lines, revolving around a tragic automobile accident.
Something about the movie’s title intrigued me; the idea that your life’s worth can be quantified might be scientifically preposterous, but it is philosophically fascinating. In the initial couple of minutes, I was mesmerized by the quality of film-making I was experiencing, but could not help but wonder what it was all about.
The non-linear narrative confuses you initially and you even wonder if it is necessary; but as the narrative slowly unfolds, things start falling into place. Based on the universal themes of death, pain and damnation, the movie follows the journey of Cristina Peck, a recovering drug addict and suburban family woman, whose life is torn apart by the death of her husband Michael and two children in a fatal accident involving a Christian reformed ex-convict Jack Jordan. As her life crumbles around her, she meets Paul, a terminally ill mathematics professor, who was given a new lease of life after a heart transplant from Michael.
The screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga is gripping; ably aided by some innovative editing and haunting cinematography. Even my initial apprehension towards the lack of a coherent narrative was blown away as I slowly found myself invested in the emotional turmoil of the characters. In fact, it is almost as if we literally feel what they are going through. We see their lives the way they see it; in utmost disarray and chaos, as they try to make sense of it all; slowly picking up the pieces. In a way, it manages to bridge the barrier between the characters and the audience, as we internalize their pain and suffering.