- 21 Grams (movie 2003) review: Sean Penn delivers what could be his most nuanced performance to date in Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga’s unnecessarily labyrinthine and cliché-plagued, metaphysicalish psychological drama.
- Sean Penn’s fellow cast members Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, Melissa Leo, and Charlotte Gainsbourg are also in top form.
- 21 Grams was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Actress (Naomi Watts) and Best Supporting Actor (Benicio Del Toro).
21 Grams (movie 2003) review: 5 performers help to redeem Alejandro González Iñárritu & Guillermo Arriaga’s time-space tangle
Shot in documentary style, director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s 21 Grams is a bleak, self-important, unnecessarily convoluted, but ultimately – and more than a bit surprisingly – poignant drama about a trio of intersecting lives and the immediacy of death.
As indicated in the film’s title – a reference to the alleged weight of a person’s soul – death, in fact, permeates just about every scene in 21 Grams.
Math professor Paul (Sean Penn) is a dying man in urgent need of a heart transplant. Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is a born-again Christian ex-con who has run over a man and his two daughters as they were crossing a street. Cristina (Naomi Watts) is the woman whose family Jack has killed.
In order to tell the three disparate but intertwined stories, Alejandro González Iñárritu opted to use handheld cameras, loads of close-ups, and washed-out colors (top-quality work by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto), while his Amores Perros collaborator Guillermo Arriaga built a meticulously fragmented narrative.
As a result, 21 Grams provides no sense of a time-space continuum. There’s no future and no past, no here and no there – just numerous “presents” and “everywheres” that appear to be dangling from a dimension free of time-space constraints.
One could argue that such fragmentation is a cinematic reflection of the characters’ equally fragmented selves. In the final analysis, however, Iñárritu and Arriaga’s approach is no more than a narrative gimmick – one that works both for and against their film.
One positive consequence of the filmmakers’ choice – and of film editor Stephen Mirrione’s outstanding work – is that, from the get-go, 21 Grams immerses the viewer in its implacable flow.
Without buoys or lifeguards on duty, viewers must struggle to stay afloat while Iñárritu and Arriaga throw them myriad clues, including several deceptive ones, about the story’s final destination.
On the other hand, one important negative consequence is that the very fragmentation that absorbs viewers’ intellect and arouses their curiosity may end up keeping them at an emotional distance from the film, for 21 Grams offers no crescendo leading to a dramatic climax.
In addition, the deceptive clues – e.g., the sequence in which we see Paul shoot Jack – are both unnecessary and irritating. These are cheap tricks whose unintended outcome is to make the filmmakers look like cheats.
Unconventional screenplay’s conventionalities
If that weren’t all, Arriaga’s screenplay – even if generally well-rounded in terms of character delineation – has a number of other flaws. For instance, the script does fall prey to the Hollywood cliché that hero and heroine must – simply must – fall in love.
As the makers of a movie that relishes in being “unconventional,” director and screenwriter could have come up with some other type of bond. Perhaps a connection that arises out of the fact that the dying and the grieving share a heart?
Elsewhere in the story, there is some unexplained behavior, such as the insistence of Paul’s ex-wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) on having his baby even though their relationship is anything but sturdy, and some dime-store philosophizing, as when Paul starts wondering about the meaning of life and death as his soul – all 21 grams of it – is about to leave his body.
“How much is gained [with death]?” he wonders.
Could it be a brand new life in the shape of a baby?
Viewers, for their part, might want to ask, “How much is lost with mawkish movie clichés?”
Superb acting all around
Those qualms notwithstanding, 21 Grams is a must-see. Just consider:
How much is gained when a film showcases superb acting all around?
Venice Film Festival Best Actor Volpi Cup winner Sean Penn gives what may be the best performance of his career, far surpassing his Oscar-winning turn in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River that same year.
Naomi Watts, mesmerizing in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., is excellent as a woman overflowing with hatred and bitterness.
Benicio Del Toro – in spite of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod, as much a lead as Penn and Watts – is impeccable. Here’s a man who is at once fearsome and fearful, forceful and feeble, nefarious and righteous.
In smaller roles, Melissa Leo, as Jack’s overly protective wife, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Paul’s obsessive ex, create two more flawless characterizations.
Tortuous but nice
In sum, 21 Grams is a pretentious, emotionally detached, and gratuitously tortuous cinematic experience that features more clichés than it has the right to.
It’s also mostly redeemed by engrossing characters, sterling craftsmanship, and a uniformly perfect cast.
21 Grams (movie 2003) cast & crew
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Screenplay: Guillermo Arriaga.
Cast: Sean Penn. Naomi Watts. Benicio Del Toro. Charlotte Gainsbourg. Melissa Leo. Danny Huston. Eddie Marsan. John Rubinstein.
“21 Grams (Movie 2003): Flawless Acting Quintet” notes
How much does the human soul weigh?
 The 21 grams figure came about via some dubious research Dr. Duncan MacDougall of Haverhill, Massachusetts, performed in the early 1900s.
“21 Grams (Movie 2003)” endnotes
Naomi Watts and Sean Penn 21 Grams movie images: Focus Features.
“21 Grams (Movie 2003): Flawless Acting Quintet in Overambitious Drama” last updated in April 2023.