Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is ill, desperately waiting for someone to die who is a suitable heart donor, while his wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is waiting for a chance to have a baby, but it seems it won't happen naturally. Nor is their relationship likely to last. Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) is convulsed and traumatised by the accidental death of her husband and two little daughters in a hit and run, with driver Jack (Benicio del Toro) mortified and guilt ridden about the event. Despite his wife's (Melissa Leo) pleas, Jack wants to give himself up.
Review by Louise Keller:
A startling film about life, death and love, 21 Grams is an engrossing melee of non-linear, seemingly dislocated scenes that impact like an explosion when the pieces of jigsaw puzzle begin to fit. From director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros) comes this profoundly intimate story about three different lives that unexpectedly impact on each other. Shot with urgency by a hand-held camera that takes us not only en situ, but also into the soul of the characters, this is a film that requires (and deserves) concentration and patience, while the story unravels.
Conscience, faith, love, hate, revenge, redemption - a heady, powerful mix indeed, and delivered by three remarkable performances. A couple in bed; girl in a support group; man preaching his faith; man in 'death's waiting room'; girl snorting coke; woman in doctor's surgery exploring artificial insemination; man greeting his family. The opening scenes are short and potent. We slowly get a sense of the rhythm of the ensuing drama, as we begin to understand little by little, something about the lives that the three different story strands bring.
This is a film of performances and Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro are all magnificent. Performances that bring us to tears, move, shock, enthral, disturb, amaze us. Penn effuses melancholy; it is impossible not to be touched by his forthright, flawed Paul who is given a second chance, but becomes obsessed to make his own peace. Intuitive, subtle and downright brilliant, Penn is the emotional pivot towards which we gravitate. Del Toro's Jack uses his newly discovered faith to rationalise everything in his life. 'God even knows when a single hair moves on your head,' he tells a would-be reformer. But he soon discovers that 'hell is in his head', as he struggles with his conscience and moral duty. Watts unleashes raw angst and emotional pain as a young wife and mother experiencing devastating loss.
We feel her hurting and it is affecting. And together, the impact of the emotions canvassed, are profound. 21 Grams is a film to ponder. While the title questions the 21 grams lost at time of death, there is much that explores life and the reasons for living. Lingering and provocative, this is a film that digs deep and hard. You may scratch your fingernail polish while you're digging, but it's worth it.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The biggest problem with this film is it needs to be carefully explained . . . reconstructed, really. The synopsis above is a skeletal outline of circumstances, not a real story. Nor is it the way an audience perceives the film, but a distillation of some elements. To really explain it, you have to refer to the official handbook, which is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs. To link the characters would give away some of the most concealed elements of the film: elements that the film reveals in the most obfuscated, convoluted and yet hamfisted way.
That's not to say all films must be told in linear fashion; but we must be allowed 'in' to care for the characters, to have a sense of relevance, if not immediately, at least soon. Here, we don't even get to like any of the characters; hell, we don't get to know them amidst the bitsy footage that throws us from yesterday to breakfast.
So from the perspective of a story, it's a disaster; whether it is the writer, the director or the editor who decided to structure the film like a jigsaw thrown into a bin, they are all responsible. Switching between times and jumping from the two sets of characters (heart patient and wife, guilty driver and wife) the film manages to leave us completely distanced. Bored in my case. We just can't get any sense of context, and the extreme emotions portrayed on screen end up looking overwrought, repetitive and fake.
In what appears to be a too clever by half approach, the storytelling is abandoned in favour of what plays like self indulgent filmmaking where meaning is sacrificed at the altar of effect. This response is reinforced by cinematography that looks 'colorised', with an ugly blue tinge to most of it. Fake cinematic devices deepen the malaise: in the first phone call Christine takes on her mobile, we can hear the caller. A few seconds later in the same scene, with the most dramatically crucial call, we can't. In a later scene, on the same phone, we can, again.
But that is nothing compared to the lightweight concept - 21 grams - that seems to be the foundation of the film's construct (hence the title). When we die, according to the final sentences of narration, we all lose exactly 21 grams. (A statement that demands challenge, surely.) But the narration doesn't really help us answer the question: what story is the film trying to tell? And having such a great cast just makes it worse: it's like a misguided quest, where one bad choice leads to another. Manipulative, contrived and irritating, 21 Grams is trying to be a heavyweight but doesn't have what it takes.
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21 GRAMS (MA)
CAST: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Danny Huston, Clea DuVall
PRODUCER: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Ted Hope, Robert Salerno
DIRECTOR: Alejandro González Iñárritu
SCRIPT: Guillermo Arriaga
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Rodrigo Prieto
EDITOR: Stephen Mirrione
MUSIC: Gustavo Santaolalla
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Brigitte Broch
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 22, 2004
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow Entertainment
VIDEO RELEASE: August 5, 2004