“Perhaps it was a sin to kill the fish . . . But then everything is a sin.”
—The Old Man and the Sea.
n 21 Grams, a flawed and fated hero (Sean Penn, playing Paul Rivers) dies a tragic, self-inflicted death after living the lie of a failed marriage while awaiting a heart transplant (he is flawed because he is, literally and figuratively, without heart). A life-long petty criminal and alcoholic (Benicio del Toro, playing Jack Jordan), on a Sisyphus-like mission to repent and raise a family in a “Christ-like” way in spite of obsessive-compulsive devotion and a great heart, tragically fails again and again. A former drug abuser (Naomi Watts, playing Cristina Peck) loses her heart: her husband and two young children in a tragic accident. Sounds like a Greek tragedy, doesn’t it?
Even we, the audience, are drafted by this demanding film to be its “Greek chorus,” its angels. We know the end of the film from the outset, but we do not know the means (how do these three characters wind up in the same speeding car, with Rivers bleeding to death in the back seat?), and, just as the angels in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire stand by but cannot touch, impact, or influence humanity, we are powerless to help, advise, or change the characters’ fates.
The film’s story revolves around Benicio’s Jordan, the protagonist, following Jesus’ will in his “Jesus Saves” truck with “Faith” written on its bumper. It is Jesus’ will for him to have the truck; perhaps it is also Jesus’ will for him to kill Cristina’s family, and all so that Rivers will get a heart and impregnate Peck with his child. Perhaps the point of the entire exercise has itself been pre-arranged and fated: find a helpless criminal with terrible luck in the midst of living a self-hating life and use him to get two souls together to produce a new child for the coming generation before Rivers dies.
The film’s theory of fate—tragedy is pre-scripted—invites comparison with something more intimate than most of the possible parallels: Greek tragedy, grand opera, modern opera (Rent), literary tales of resurrection like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and its modern equivalent, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or even fantasy—The Wizard of Oz (complete with Sean Penn singing “If I Only Had a Heart”).
A more enlightening case may emerge if we focus on Benicio’s Jordan and contrast him with another literary protagonist on a journey of atonement from transgression through extreme suffering and struggle: the fisherman in Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.
In the novel, an old fisherman who has not caught a fish for 84 days must endure a punishing multi-day and night struggle (I count parts of three days, equal to Jesus’ death before his resurrection) to catch an enormous fish, only to have sharks eat it as he makes his way back home from the sea. He returns with just a skeleton and part of the head; his only “redemption” is that he is acclaimed a hero by the fishing village for his struggle—but in the end he has nothing to show for it.
The most obvious comparison to begin with is that “Rivers” and “Jordan,” as names, are related to great bodies of water. The Jordan River figures prominently in religious literature and the beautiful Negro spirituals—one wants, with all one’s heart, to cross the Jordan to find the promised land. Paul Rivers must cross over Jack Jordan’s path to fulfill his destiny before he can die.
Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea takes place in September—in the “hurricane months” filled with terrible and beautiful weather—that is, constant upheaval and tumultuous change. With this weather, capable of the most beautiful calm and the most horrendous storms, comes “the month when the great fish come”—prime time for catching large fish who, in their own hunt for food, come closer to shore now than at any other time. (Hemingway, 19). We are also in a time of great change in 21 Grams. The leaves have all fallen around Cristina’s house and the young gardener gathers them while her family dies.
Jack Jordan is Santiago, the Old Man. The old man’s boat is the “Jesus Saves” truck. The truck, a “gift” from Jesus, is instrumental in the death of Peck’s husband and children just as Santiago’s boat is instrumental in the death of the fish. But the death of Cristina Peck’s family brings the heart of her husband to Sean Penn, just as the death of the fish feeds the sharks, and, by way of the incident, brings newfound respect to Santiago back at port.
Santiago is derided by the other fishermen as unlucky, just as Jordan is laughed at by the caddies at the exclusive country club. Jordan is marked on his neck by a tattoo, just as Santiago is marked by “brown blotches of benevolent skin cancer” and “deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords” (Hemingway, 13). There is no mistaking Santiago for anything but an old fisherman, just as one cannot but see Jordan as an unprivileged, lower-class man trailing a life of hard luck.
The old man lives in a tattered shack; Jordan lives in a trailer park. Jordan, younger than Santiago, still has a wife and two children; the old man had a wife who died, and now simply has a color picture of “The Sacred Heart of Jesus.” For Jesus’ mission on earth to be fulfilled, he had to shed blood to fulfill the law (a perfect man must die for Adam’s sin); so, too, in both Santiago’s and Jordan’s life, more blood must be spilled to atone for their sins: both are lives filled with “salao, which is the worst form of unlucky” (Hemingway, 13).
In the novel, a young boy, Manolin, loves the old man and tries to take care of him. Manolin may represent a composite of many things. He is a caregiver-Jesus (he brings the old man coffee with milk and sugar in the morning, his only nourishment for the day, just as Jesus is “nourishing” to Jordan). Manolin also represents the literal son of Jordan who, in his simple and powerful way, hatefully looks Jordan in the eye and says, “yes, he killed them”—Peck’s family. Jordan’s son is the voice of absolute truth, a truth that sends Jordan on a solo journey far from home, to a seedy motel. The old man goes far out to an inhospitable sea.
Manolin works for the old man for forty catch-less days (a biblical number—the number of days Noah’s Ark had to endure the flood, the length of time Jesus walked the wilderness). His parents (God?) tell Manolin that the old man is bad luck and so he may not go out to fish with him any longer. Another forty days go by, and four more—until the eighty-fifth day, when the old man, determined to get up early and go out as far as his skiff will take him, wakes the little boy (Jesus is prayed to) to help him set up his boat.
The marlin is Rivers, as it is Michael, Peck’s husband. Santiago destroys the “heart” of the great fish with a harpoon: it is the “heart” of Michael that winds up in Rivers, who is eaten, on his way back to port, by sharks (menacing objects, people, and situations) in the ocean of the world.
Cristina Peck, for her part, may well represent the ocean of life: the old man “always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people in Spanish call her when they love her” . . . ”always as though she were a woman” . . . “something that gave or withheld great favors, and if she did something wild and wicked . . . it was because she could not help them.” (Hemingway, 27). Peck’s drinking, her drug addiction, her attempt to drive home under the influence—her terrible state of mind causes her to do strange things, yet we forgive her because of her grief. And, of course, Cristina Peck, on her road to recovery, chooses to exercise by swimming. She is finding life in the water.
Santiago sums up his life this way: “everything kills everything else in some way. Fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive.” (Hemingway, 80). Something must die for something to live. Jordan’s crime is simply being Jordan; Santiago’s is that he has lived too long. Santiago’s goal is to catch the great fish; Jordan’s goal, now on a “righteous” path, is to fulfill Jesus’ mandate, whatever that may be (drive his truck and give a heart to Rivers). Jordan’s surprise is that he didn’t expect Jesus’ will to mean death and despair so great that he attempts suicide on a “water” pipe.
In fact, there comes a moment when Jordan and Rivers (Santiago and the fish) are not sure who will die—Jordan puts the revolver in Rivers’ hand and points it at his own throat, begging to be killed. Santiago, in the throes of the marlin’s capture, says, “Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.” Just let it finish.
As the fish circles the skiff in his last desperate fight for life, I am reminded how Jordan’s truck kills Peck’s family in a traffic circle. An exhausted Santiago says “I shouldn’t have gone out so far, fish . . . Neither for you nor for me. I’m sorry, fish.” And Jordan sits in his driveway, in his Jesus truck, hyperventilating, the sick cold sweat of having taken lives, including his own.
As Jordan turns himself in to the police, there is a showdown in the jail with the minister that is particularly ugly and grueling. The minister represents the shark attacks (is it my imagination or does the actor cast in the part have a low “shark” forehead?); he attacks Jordan, using “eight rows of teeth . . . slanted inwards” (Hemingway, 76), ripping into Jordan, making no logical sense, repeating meaningless and circular religious arguments, which Jordan repels and rejects. Jordan is crushed as a man; he rejects Jesus.
The old man, toward the end of the journey, rope burns on his hands and back, rejects his inner voice: ”You give me much good counsel . . . I’m tired of it.” (Hemingway, 83). Jordan, drunk, hangs up on his wife from the motel lobby’s payphone. He, too, is tired of good counsel, not just from Jesus, but from his wife.
At the end of Santiago’s battle, on his final approach to Havana (“heaven”), the old man prays, “I hope so much that I do not have to fight again”—referring to another inevitable attack from hungry sharks—“but by midnight he fought and this time he knew the fight was useless.” (Hemingway, 87). By the end of the old man’s ordeal, he is exhausted; he wants to fight, but he doesn’t have the strength. “You violated your luck when you went too far outside.” (Hemingway, 86). Santiago has gone too far outside of the fishing grounds allotted to him. He has left safety behind. Jordan, too, has gone too far outside his life—he was meant to stay a criminal; his trying to do good works has gotten Jesus’ attention (he is hooked by the fish and dragged way out to sea); he will be used by Jesus, although not in the way he intended.
Jordan tries to fight the system once more by claiming to be Rivers’ shooter and murderer—he is seeking imprisonment and punishment, and, again, he gets exactly the opposite of what he asks for: the police release him on shaky evidence. He now has the rest of his life to live with himself. Santiago has been atoning for bad luck; Jordan’s bad luck never ends.
At the end of the film, Santiago and Jordan both go home to their “shacks.” Both are exhausted. Both have eaten raw from the ocean—Santiago has eaten uncooked fish; Jordan has endured the beatings and the evil eye of Peck. The old man’s caretaker, the little boy, comes to him just as Jesus would come to a penitent after an ordeal.
God isn’t with you during trials. He is there before to prepare you; he is there afterwards to heal your wounds—but the trial—life—is all up to you. We are alone. Yes, this is contrary to the greeting-card image of a single pair of footprints on the beach.
Rivers, for his part, can father the child, but may not live to raise it. He atones for his sins by dying (the heart is rejected and he dies by asphyxiation—dying from a lack of oxygen as the great fish dies from too much of it); Peck may have her family restored (God gave Job another family after his earlier one perished); she may mother the child, but not with Rivers. And will she stay free from drugs?
In addition to the literal similarities of setting—both Cuba’s Gulf of Mexico and Southern California are known for their Spanish-speaking populations—there is also a stereotypical similarity in these two stories in which the “Latin” heart leads and rules the head. The “gringo,” Rivers, who leaves behind reason and science (his “North American-ness”), dies romantically as he gives in to heart. The “big heart story” and the “big fish story” end: we have suffered greatly, we have lived deeply, but we have ultimately gained little and lost everything. And everything weighs a mere 21 grams.
We assume the old man will go back to fish tomorrow; the little boy pledges to go with him and bring the little boy’s “luck.” Jesus was a fisher of souls. Jordan, we hope, stays with his family. Perhaps he goes back to that church, perhaps he doesn’t, but hopefully he finds the one thing he has never had—balance.
Yet what if, like in Bill Murray’s film, Groundhog Day, each day that both Jordan and Santiago wake up, they must once again face the day of the great fish catch? Hope eternal morphs into redundant existentialism. The suffering and struggle to earn redemption must be repeated each and every day—we are never done repenting, suffering, or atoning. And the acts of our sins may be a divine plan to keep us “hooked”—it both accomplishes divine will and keeps us humble and submissive. No one is ever saved, much less “saved again.”
Michael Lengel has been a theatre and TV actor for fifteen years. He is shopping around a demo tape of a kids TV show he created, just got an agent for a sci-fi novel and is writing another, and is pursuing further studies at Marymount Manhattan College.