In I Corinthians 13, Paul makes this statement: “We don’t see things clearly. We are squinting in a fog, peering through a mist.” It seems that no matter how sure we are, there are times in which the vision of God becomes like finding a needle in a haystack.
“21 Grams,” released recently on DVD, has God playing an uncredited role. It tells three interrelated stories of three characters. There is the story of Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro), an ex-con who “got religion” in prison and lives his life by a fundamentalist doctrine. His idea of Christianity is that we take the Bible’s teachings and make them literal. When his son hits his daughter in the arm, he makes the child offer her other arm for hitting.
Paul (Sean Penn) is a man suffering from heart disease and awaiting a transplant. His wife, Marianne (Melissa Leo), wants a child, but her decision to abort her first pregnancy has left her unable to become pregnant by natural means. She wants to have a baby with Paul via artificial fertilization so she can have the child after his death. Being a mathematics professor, Paul views God in terms of cause and effect. All God does is seen through logic.
Cristina (Naomi Watts) is a recovering addict who attends Narcotics Anonymous. Both her daughters and husband were killed in a hit-and-run accident. God, for her, is the distant higher power that gives her the strength to stay off drugs. But that power seems to have left her, and she begins the slide back into addiction.
All three of these stories are united by the hit-and-run accident.
With its nonlinear story, “21 Grams” is not a conventional movie. Its scenes have no apparent rhyme or reason, but they come together to have a logic all their own. This may be distracting for some, but it speaks of the reality that life is not linear. Sometimes our storylines run concurrently with other storylines. The way those stories turn out does not seem to run from beginning to end, but up and down, back and forth. Many of our stories do not have nice and neat resolutions. This movie is like that, but the storytelling method may be challenging for many to watch.
Yet the challenge is worth taking. The movie asks some very hard questions. These questions have much to do with the nature of God, and how we humans try to peer into that fog and make sense of what we see. It is a powerful movie that does not answer all of the questions raised, but gives us room to decide for ourselves what our answers will be.
One of the questions is how, in the face of tragedy, do we go on? “21 Grams” is not a movie that leaves us warm and fuzzy; it makes us face some harsh realities.
Sam Keene wrote about life’s questions, and he concluded that finding the answers was an impossible task. He said he had to learn to be comfortable with the questions—instead of being comfortable with finding the answers.
“21 Grams” allows us to move to another level of confrontation, and maybe comfort, with our questions.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexuality, some violence and drug use. Reviewer’s note: This movie also contains nudity.
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Writer: Guillermo Arriaga
Cast: Paul: Sean Penn; Jack: Benicio Del Toro; Christina: Naomi Watts; Mary: Charlotte Gainsbourg; Marianne: Melissa Leo; Michael: Danny Huston; Claudia: Clea DuVall.
The movie’s Web site is here.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.