21 Grams (2003)

The second film of Inarritu’s ‘hyperlink’ trilogy may occasionally feel overwrought by design, but the top-tier performances from Naomi Watts, Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro give it the requisite emotional intensity to work.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review #2,572

Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
2003 | USA | Drama | 125 min | 1.85:1 | English
M18 (passed clean) for language, sexuality, some violence and drug use

Cast: Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro, Naomi Watts, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo
Plot: A freak accident brings together a critically ill mathematician, a grieving mother, and a born-again ex-con.
Awards: Won Best Actor & Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice); Nom. for 2 Oscars – Best Leading Actress, Best Supporting Actor
Distributor: Focus Features

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Fate & Faith; Intersecting Lives
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: Netflix
Spoilers: No

For a period of time, 21 Grams was my favourite Alejandro G. Inarritu picture.  Revisiting it again after more than 15 years, I don’t quite share that sentiment anymore, though it is still a good film. 

Maybe being a more mature viewer has led me to become more sensitive to bouts of constructed poeticism, which the film does sometimes indulge in.  As such, it occasionally feels overwrought by design, a scripting meticulousness that calls attention to its self-importance. 

But all that can be brushed aside when the organic performances from the leading trio of Naomi Watts, Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro take center stage.  They each headline the three main narrative threads that would collide in a tragedy that would change their lives. 

“And no, that’s a lie, life does not just go on.”

This ‘hyperlink’ structure is not new, but amplified particularly in the early 2000s, partly by the critical success of films like Inarritu’s own Amores Perros (2000) and Babel (2006), and Oscar winners such as Traffic (2000) and Crash (2004). 

The emotional intensity of 21 Grams bears fruit as the top-tier performances give the characters a level of authenticity that is also enhanced by the largely hand-held camerawork. 

Exploring themes of fate, faith, tragedy and redemption, 21 Grams shows us how difficult it is to overcome a debilitating existence, whether it is a painful loss, unfathomable guilt or terminal illness. 

This was also the film that first introduced me to the intoxicating music by the underrated composer Gustavo Santaolalla, whom Inarritu worked with for his first four features.

Grade: B+




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