Though he did not write or direct it, the directorial fingerprints of lead actor Sean Penn can be seen all over the psychological thriller 21 Grams. The films he writes and directs are melancholy and highly stylized--and while it's obvious that someone with a lot more cinematic skill than Penn has supervised the editing process, his choice of this script over the dozens of others he was undoubtedly offered last year can likely be attributed to the similarities in both tone and content that 21 Grams has to Penn's own work as a filmmaker.
It's a wonder that no critic ever made the connection between this film and The Crossing Guard, which Penn wrote and directed. In 21 Grams, Penn plays the main
character (if one had to be so designated), Paul Rivers, whose life is changed when a driver mows down a man and his two children. The story bounces around in time, giving attention to the wife/mother of those slain, the driver/killer himself and Penn, who is the eventual recipient of the man's heart when he dies and his wife donates the organs.
Reminiscent of Return to Me, except good, 21 Grams is at its center the story of a relationship that develops between Rivers and Christina Peck (the character portrayed by Academy Award nominee Naomi Watts), the wife of the man whose heart Penn has. Other than the one bad pun--»You can trust me, I have a good heart.»--the relationship is actually reasonably believable (taking for granted that her psyche is destroyed by grief and shock). She kisses him, kicks him out, invites him back, sleeps with him, hates herself, blames him, asks for his help in killing the man who killed her family. She's passionate and volatile and that's why she got the Best Actress nomination.
In Penn's The Crossing Guard, which is actually DIRECTED by Penn, the main character of the film is the father of a young girl killed when a drunk driver ran her down at a crosswalk. After the man's release from jail, the father stakes out his trailer and plans to kill him. In the film, he goes so far as to stake out the route between the prison and the home where the killer's parents live (and where he will live upon his leave from jail).
Aside from the fact that these two individuals engage in behavior patterns that are almost identical, one who has a working knowledge of Penn's other film work (both as an actor and a writer/director) would see an emergent pattern of loyalty to family above all else. «A man turns his back on his family, well, he just ain't no good,» opines narrator Joe Roberts in Penn's debut film The Indian Runner (though to give credit where credit's due: Joe Roberts, that quote and indeed virtually the entire plot for The Indian Runner was lifted from a 1983 Bruce Springsteen song called Highway Patrolman).
Loyalty to family reaches Mafia-like levels in Penn's work. and he has strayed into that area himself when acting in others' films. Of particular interest with regard to family dynamics is Mystic River, for which Penn won an Oscar earlier this month for portraying the grieving father of a murdered girl who kills the man he believes to be her murderer even though he admits openly to liking the man.
The family's importance challenges even that of the God that many of these characters believe in. You can see this in the character of Marianne Jordan, the wife of Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro's character and the man who inadvertently kills Christina Peck's familiy), who upon hearing that nobody saw the accident, tells her fundamentalist Christian husband to just put it out of his mind, to think of himself above all others and not to turn himself in to the police. While his conscience and his beliefs tell him to turn himself in and accept the consequences of his mistake, Del Toro's Jordan struggles with such inner turmoil that his face is, for most of the film, twisted into a mask of grief, guilt and confusion. It's a staring contest between his spiritual life and the well-being of his family and Jordan feels that he's less of a participant than a pawn, waiting to move until someone or something has told him what's right. Like the drunk driver in The Crossing Guard, Jordan is so consumed with guilt that he's willing to plead guilty to the law, the victims--anyone who will judge him and let him either die or move on.
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