21 Grams


Reviewed by: David Haviland

21 Grams
"This is a thoughtful meditation on death, with complex well-drawn characters."

Three strangers's lives are thrown together by a chain of unplanned events, leading to a fatal and fateful resolution.

Paul (Sean Penn) is a mathematician with a broken heart, literally and metaphorically. He is bedridden and nursed by his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who desperately wants a child. Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is an ex-con who found God and now inflicts Him on his family. Cristina (Naomi Watts) is a respectable wife and mother and a former drug addict. The three are unconnected, until their fates are brought together by a car crash.

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21 Grams is the second feature from Mexican writer/director team Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro González Iñárritu and, like their debut, Amores Perros, it features a fractured narrative, which jumps around the story, cutting between past, present and future. This is initially confusing, but after a while the main chronological thread becomes clear, as does the fact that, despite superficial similarities with films such as Memento and The Usual Suspects, there is no mystery to piece together. Instead, the filmmakers try to show us scenes in order of importance to the narrative, giving away the ending early, in order to ensure that the audience is focussed on the why, not the how, and escalating the sense that tragic events are predestined.

As this innovation suggests, 21 Grams exhibits a rare passion for the medium. It's unsurprising then that the cinematography is striking, using handheld cameras, a range of grainy stock and a bleach-bypass development process to give the film a lurid, eye-catching palette. The music - what there is of it - is discreet and effective and the performances are generally excellent, although I found Watts a touch melodramatic.

This is a thoughtful meditation on death, with complex well-drawn characters. It is loaded with imagery and metaphor. For example, each character figuratively, or literally, loses a child at the moment they lose their innocence and hope.

Despite the impressive skill on show, 21 Grams fails to engage as a story, partly because we already know the conclusion. The characters are selfish and unpleasant and the film's message is depressing and fatalistic. Towards the end, it becomes increasingly portentous and humourless, particularly in the explanation of the film's title, and we come away wondering what might have been had the material been approached with a lighter touch.

Reviewed on: 02 Feb 2004
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21 Grams packshot
The lives of a junkie and ex-con and a college professor intersect.
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Read more 21 Grams reviews:

Keith Hennessey Brown ****

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Writer: Guillermo Arriaga

Starring: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Danny Huston, Clea DuVall, Chance Romero, Marc Musso, Paul Calderon, Catherine Dent

Year: 2003

Runtime: 125 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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If you like this, try:

Amores Perros