Where have I been living? Obviously nowhere on this earth because I wake to find that Sean Penn is one of the best actors I’ve seen in recent years and I mean this sincerely. Oh disagree if you want, but I’m serious and likely you all know this and I’m again the odd man, or odd woman, out. This fact struck me after seeing his performance in both Mystic River and in 21 Grams.
His performance in Mystic River, based on the Dennis Lehane novel and taking place in a town in which I’ve lived, was enough to convince me of Penn’s acting chops, and I recently saw the film 21 grams and was amazed at how Penn has matured a an actor, how he has grown into himself and away from the paparazzi punching Madonna’s boyfriend bad-boy that I remember him as. Sure, he’s played a few roles here and there or maybe I missed some of the larger ones, but I have to say, his performance in Mystic River was absolutely convincing and having lived in the midst of this neighborhood, it struck me as utterly authentic.
What impresses me the most perhaps is the difference between that performance and Penn’s performance in 21 Grams, in which he plays a heart transplant patient who receives the heart of Naomi Watt’s awfully killed husband (and two daughters) who are accidentally run over by Benecio Del Torro (an accident for which he does not stop, though later will attempt to make right) and who are left to die on the road “like a dog” she says. Somehow, Penn finds out whose heart he has and seeks a relationship with the widow. Never mind that he is already has a wife who has stood by him through all of this health issues. The desire to know, the desire to try to help in some way overrides any desire to stay with his wife who wants desperately to be artificially inseminated by him, an idea she is obsessed with despite his protestations of no, he nonetheless fill his little cup with his sperm, signs the release and so what is his recourse? None. She can have his sperm and maybe even his child, but it seems she cannot have him.
That Naomi Watts should be devastated is hardly surprising. To lose her entire family in this way would take away almost anyone’s will to live, at least for a while. And that she turns to drugs – cocaine and other illegal substances, is also not surprising. It’s just a way of self-medicating, of taking away her emotional pain that runs so deep. Penn arrives as a friend, and at first, does not reveal that he has her dead husband’s heart – a fact she will find out in time and will be understandably hysterical about – a scene that Watts plays extremely well, for the record. Her anger, her hysteria, her hurt, the words and the way she says them are utterly believable as is Penn’s reaction.
The whole scene reminded me somewhat of Penn’s reaction on finding out of his daughter’s death in Mystic River as he approaches the crime scene and asks his old friend Sean Devine if that is “my daughter in there.” Devine, played by Kevin Bacon, gives no answer, just a look that confirms Penn’s worst fears and this is more effective. The next scene is of Penn appearing to sink into the arms of the many police that surround him to hold him back, their blue uniforms appearing to swallow him, as if death itself were sucking him down.
Penn is always facing real drama in his roles, and it seems this is what he does best. It’s hard to imagine him doing comedy. He doesn’t strike me as a “funny” guy in a traditional sense. No doubt, he has a keen sense of humor – after all, he’s smart, wickedly so, I should think, but comedy? No. This sort of drama that deals with life and death situations seems to suit his acting abilities well. Still, I can’t remember Penn appearing in such strong roles before these two films, which is not to say he did not, perhaps he did, only to say that I somehow missed those films and perhaps had my head firmly in the ground like some kind of emu.
The title “21 Grams” interests me a great deal. They say in the film that “at the time of our death, we all lose exactly 21 grams of weight.” Which is the equivalent of “a hummingbird, a candy bar, a stack of nickels?” I wondered if this was true, and then thought Why would they use this as such a grand premise if it were not true? It seems almost too random. Surely there is some truth behind it. Then it made me wonder if this is true, what exactly is that 21 grams?
I asked my son, who said without hesitation, “Maybe it’s your soul.”
I hadn’t thought of that and yet, I’m the supposed religious one in this family, far more than he. An intelligent and thoughtful answer, even if metaphysical and hard to prove, I like and liked the answer and the idea of it.
My husband said “maybe it’s breath” – the air in our lungs, which must have some weight – but then, I was under the impression that air was weightless, which could be totally wrong, but there you have it. My ignorance. Correct me if you know the answer.
In any event, the idea that we all of us lose 21 grams at the minute of our death is a fascinating premise. What is it we lose? How? Where does it go? Matter is always recycled, this much I remember. It is not destroyed; it just changes form. This much I remember from all those A.P classes in school, unless I was taught wrong. So if matter cannot be destroyed and only changes form, what then does this 21 grams turn into? How odd, I thought, that the title of the film doesn’t strive to answer this question- though I admit my DVD was skipping around a lot from damage so perhaps it did and I missed it somehow, but from what I saw, it didn’t answer the question. Perhaps that was the point. To leave us wondering. To leave us wanting. To give us the idea, as my son had said so cleverly, that this was the soul leaving the body – that the soul weighs 21 grams.
I’ve never been a big believer in souls, or ensoulment, but under the present circumstances, I have to say that this answer makes a great deal of sense to me, as does the oxygen argument, but again, does oxygen really weigh anything? We don’t loose blood or anything else, so what could it be? This remains to me a mystery but one I intend to pursue because I want to know if it’s even true, because for all I know it could be completely nonsense and just an intriguing title for a film. It’s good to see Sean Penn all grown up and as successful as he is, though I hope that he receives the industry recognition he so well deserves.
I remember Penn in the mid-eighties when he was just hitting everybody, apparently, Madonna included, one of many reasons for their break up from what the papers reported, from what I know. I remember thinking he was a hanger on, that he wouldn’t make it on his own and I don’t doubt that his association with Madonna in those early years helped put him on the map – in other words, shone a spotlight where before there had been none. I remember not liking him then because I don’t like any man that hits women, no matter what their excuse and let’s face it, it’s always an excuse. There is no good reason to hit a woman. So for me, Penn had a lot of back-pedaling to do, or a long way to come before he could find his way back into my good viewing graces, at least, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this view.
What I no longer doubt is that Penn has an acting ability that far surpasses many of his peers. I cannot imagine anyone else playing the Mystic River role of Jimmy Markum in and making it wholly believable, especially for someone like me who lived in the hood and would know the difference between authentic and inauthentic. Note that Kevin Bacon too was believable in that film; that his accent, his manner, his way of being were all very much like the guys I’d known from this part of town for years, and make no mistake, guys like the nasty Savage Brothers do exist as do local “royalty” like Jimmy Markum and yes, they would shoot you in fucking heartbeat if you fucked with their families.
I’ve seen it – or seen it on the news, seen guys I know and have liked and been friends with hauled off for all sorts of crimes that later, of course, they got off for because that’s just the way it seems to work around here. It’s hard to make anything stick. You may not like what they do, but they are “good” at it – in other words, good at covering their tracks and not getting caught the same way Jimmy Markum is and though I shouldn’t say this, I have to tell you that I always felt safe in that neighborhood because once you are accepted you become a part something bigger than you, a sort of neighborhood family where people look out for you and god help anyone who should give you shit, or give me shit because all I had to do was put a word in my friend Stevie or Kenny’s ear and that was that. And that is no joke.
Now, now that I don’t live there, I feel less safe, but I also know that in a pinch I could stop by the old hood and put a word in the ear and have my own form of justice if someone hurt me. Balk all you want. Tell me how vigilante justice is wrong and for the most part I agree, but I tell you, when I was assaulted, I was grateful for those guys. I slept more easily. I felt far safer than I would have otherwise. Sure, this cuts both ways, and no, I’m not glamorizing thugs or the mafia or any such organized crime I’m simply saying that in some neighborhoods, people take care of their own and to me, this is one of the last vestiges of the civilized world – a way in which people care about each other, because I tell you, I don’t really see people giving a shit about each other for the most part. I’ve had grand mal seizures in the lobby of a satellite branch of my office and nobody made a move to help me, or call 911 or anything, despite the fact that I clearly had on ID and so forth because … because I don’t know. Maybe they assumed I was on drugs or what ever, but even so, would that be a reason not to help? I can tell you, I would have helped, at least called 911.
I don’t forget that Jimmy Markum shot the wrong person – and that’s important and that is where we realize that street justice is not the way to go. That in some ways it may be reassuring but the margin of error is far too large and innocent people may die. But all of that said, what I said above still holds true for me and my own experience, and I cannot speak for anyone else – but I felt safe. Penn does such a good job of relaying that “king of the neighborhood” demeanor that it’s hard not to be impressed. It’s in the studied casualness of his, his walk, his look, his small mannerisms, even the way he talks. I’m not saying that we should revere Jimmy Markums by any stretch, only that they exist and that Penn really captured what it means to be one and to me that is no small feat.
But in 21 Grams Penn is a different character entirely, just like he was in that movie with Dakota Fanning where he played the disabled father – another challenging and diverse role. Penn seems to get some real gems and I wonder if this is recognized in his community. If they realize what a real talent they have in his diversity. He’s like Ed Norton in some ways, in terms of his diversity, only I have to say, apologies to Ed, only better. Ed Norton is good, but you never forget that he’s Ed Norton. With Penn, I forget who it is and fall completely into the character. His accents are dead on, his attitude, his walk, his look in the face. In 21 Grams, he looks like a sick man, a man who has almost died and more, he carries that world weariness in his face wherever he goes – a certain melancholy that sticks with us and makes it all the more believable.
Penn was well-matched with Naomi Watts, but here again, I never forgot she was the chick from the The Ring because she just isn’t that diverse. Don’t get me wrong, I like her. But her facial expressions are too much the same, her look of “shock” or “joy” are remarkably invariable and that that may sound harsh, but that’s just what I see. She’s good and she tries to do or for “filler” and she may be nice to look at, but I never forget that Naomi Watts is Naomi Watts. In short, I never get lost in her character. These days, it seems rarer and rarer to find actors who are so good, so talented, that you fall completely into the role, so kudos to Penn for achieving this.
21 Grams is a film worth seeing if for nothing else, Penn’s remarkable acting and diversity. To see the difference between who he is in this role and who is was in Mystic River. Even his face appears softer here, less hard, less tough, which is fitting. I am left thinking How does he do that, but for the most part, I don’t care, I’m just glad that he does and that I am here to witness it.
I won’t say this is the best film I’ve ever seen, for surely it is not, but that said, it is still a film worth seeing and again, for Penn’s performance. And still I am left with this 21 grams issue – if that is true, and I don’t know that it is, what is it and where does it go? Perhaps my son was right. I’m not sure. Or perhaps it is just air, just our breath in and out. Or perhaps it is a total fabrication.