Creating a coherent, easy-to-follow story has always been considered the sign of good filmmaking; in fact, the given rule has been pushed to the point where breaking it would be in a bad taste. However, the few movie directors who dared to transcend the boundaries between what is accepted and what is not manage to create masterpieces and even coin new rules within the realm of the already existing ones.
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Belonging neither to the so-bad-it-is-good, nor to the so-bad-it-is-art categories, such artworks stand on their own as the utter manifestations of ample possibilities of cinema, and 21 Grams is one of such movies. Because of a clever use of jumbling the movie events, the filmmakers managed to achieve high expressivity without disrupting the narration, allowing for a better character development.
To start with, the given structure helps get the first and the second dramatic question across in a much more impressive manner. In fact, one of the many advantages of the movie is that it does not shove its ethical dilemmas into the viewer’s face – quite on the opposite, the ethical lesson is offered to the audience in a very subtle manner.
Speaking of which, the first dramatic question seems to revolve around people’s ability to change and forgive, while the second one concerns the idea of fatalism. Indeed, when taking a closer look at the movie characters, one will have to agree that the roles, which they play in each other’s lives, fall into their places perfectly as the story unwinds. Hence, despite the somewhat uneven narration manner, the midpoint of the movie stands out on its own, marking the issues that the director obviously intended to keep in the spotlight.
The emotional theme also shines through for the most of the movie, leaving enough room for a number of sentimental, as well as thought-provoking, moments. As it has been stressed above, the movie renders a lot of issues, including chemical dependency, the burden of a murderer’s guilt: “The guilt will suck you down to the bone” (21 Grams), the connection between Jack and Paul, the former being the donor for the latter, etc. The movie, therefore, poses its own set of ethical questions to the audience, making the viewers embrace the complexity of the decision to forgive.
The specific structure of the movie allows for building a specific outer emotional arc. It would have been easy to narrate the story in a very jumbled manner, switching from one character to another; however, the film director offers a much smarter and more sophisticated move to starting with the introduction of seemingly unrelated characters and then tying all the loose ends before the long-awaited climax: “How many lives do we live?” (21 Grams). The pacing of the scenes is unbelievable; they immediately draw the audience in, making the fictional story as real as reality can get.
The last, but definitely not the least, the idea of introducing the characters not through their interaction with each other, but through their inner emotional arch is pitch-perfect. With the introduction of the linear structure into the movie, a number of scenes would have been talked out instead of the conflict being shown through visual media, as it should in movies. The act that the movie is basically split into the stories of three different people helps the audience get acquainted with them and lean about their personalities and the inner conflicts that they are torn apart by.
For example, with a traditional linear structure, it would have been barely possible to see the battle that Christina is leading when she relapses into her drinking problem once again; the switch from loving and supportive to obscenely drunk, or Jack’s natural resistance in accepting faith as the path that will lead him to painful remorse: “I did everything He asked me to do! I changed!” (21 Grams).
In a linear structure, the given trick would have been impossible; in the non-linear one, however, the audience is able to see all the pain that they are going through, and believes the genuineness of their emotions.
Weirdly enough, the refusal to resort to the traditional linear structure works for the best in 21 Grams, stressing its unique conflict and making the movie all the more intense. Unlike one might have expected, the lack of cohesion between the chronological events of the movie works for the benefit of character development by letting the audience focus on the main characters and their evolution.
It would be wrong to claim that the lack of connection between the key plotlines flows impeccably with the rest of the movie elements; too traditional in the rest of its elements to be called an art house film (Galt 66), and too sophisticated to be considered a traditional pop-culture movie, it blends techniques in order to communicate an important message. The non-linear structure is not merely a cheap effect – it actually serves a particular purpose, which is to show the characters’ development and relate to them.
21 Grams. Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez. Perf. Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro. Universal City, CA: Focus Features, 2003. DVD.
Galt, Rosalind. Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.