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21 Grams (2003)

  Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Guillermo Arriaga, Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo, Sean Penn, Naomi Watts
Links: 21 Grams on the IMDb, Official site, Buy on DVD, Buy the Soundtrack, Buy the Book
Genre: Drama

This movie gets: 9.00 (2 ratings) Ranking: Ranked equal 14th of 187 movies (2 ratings minimum; see full chart)

21 Grams (2003) is also mentioned in em_fiction's review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), em_fiction's review of Magnolia (1999) and em_fiction's review of Nerd Boy (2004).

"Shaken, not stirred" - a review by pearly

21 Grams has a number of similarities to Alejandro González Iñárritu's previous film Love's a Bitch (2000). The story is non-linear. It's about strangers meeting via a tragic accident. However, one is in English, and the other is in Spanish.

In 21 Grams, there is Cristina (Naomi Watts), Paul (Sean Penn), and Jack (Benicio Del Toro). Following a fatal car accident, these three people's lives become intertwined. But due to the non-linear way in which the story is told, it is initially difficult to determine exactly how the three have anything to do with one another.

The first thing that I noticed about 21 Grams was the texture of the film stock. The entire film has a grainy sense about it, which, it appears, is used to add to the realism of what you're seeing. There's no technicolour perfection to the way the film looks - it's gritty and so are the things that are happening on screen. In a way, it's like a more subtle version of the way that different textures and colours were used in the film stock of Traffic (2000) - where in Traffic it was about as subtle as a house-brick through your window, in 21 Grams it's noticeable, but after the initial realisation of the difference between this and most Hollywood movies, it blends right in.

For the first half an hour or so of the film, you feel as if you've been thrust into the middle of a maze. The scenes are short and punchy, with many intense things going on, but no compass pointing out north. This was, as I remember, the same way that I felt at the beginning of Amores Perros, except that with that, I had the added confusion of a foreign language.

It is at this point that people could be inclined to give up on the film. That would be a great mistake. It would also be one that it wouldn't be easy to make, because in amongst the puzzle, you can already tell that you're in for an enthralling journey. And 21 Grams totally manages to keep your attention throughout.

It is, in a way, similar to the way that Memento (2000) kept you sitting there thinking about how everything fit together, and as the end drew closer, everything started to fit into place, but unlike Memento, there are less twists in the story with 21 Grams. The story is laid out bare, but laid out in such a way that it is not misleading, but just that there isn't quite enough information available yet to be able to make sense of it all. This makes the film very satisfying, and it's nice to be able to have something that you can think about without it having to be so twist-filled.

And all of this balances on the superb performances of the main actors, and their able supports. Watts is heart-breaking, Penn is once again believable, and Del Toro is simultaneously down-to-earth and terrifyingly scary. As I write this, both Watts and Del Toro have just been announced as Oscar nominees, so that gives you some idea of how well they've done their jobs in 21 Grams.

I'm not quite as generous with my praise for this film as em_fiction was, but I certainly agree that it was fantastic.

pearly gives this movie 8 out of 10.
Review created on Thu 29 Jan 2004

"‘Amazing’ would be an understatement" - a review by em_fiction

21 Grams is a delicately enthralling film from the brilliant Mexican filmmakers who made Love's a Bitch (2000). Both films are very similar in that they connect three different people via a car accident. I don't want to risk ruining it for whomever is reading by giving away too much plot; before seeing it, I (intentionally) kept myself from learning too many plot details as well, knowing nothing more than the IMDb plot outline (outline, not summary), so that's all I will give away. Rather than be a wanker and reword it so it looks like mine, I'll just cite the actual source instead: "A freak accident brings together a critically ill mathematician (Sean Penn), a grieving mother (Naomi Watts) and a born-again ex-con (Benicio Del Toro)".

I came into Cinema 2 at the Jam Factory Europa, holding a ticket stub that read 21 Grams and I thought to myself "this ought to be a good film". I was wrong. What I saw was beyond a good film. It was an amazing film. No, even a word like 'amazing' would be an understatement. The film wasn't amazing because it was incredibly ground-breaking or set the world on fire; no, the reason I found it amazing was a personal reason. I didn't find it personal in an "I could relate to the characters" sort of way. No, I found it personal for a completely different reason.

I'm still fairly young. I'm the youngest reviewer for nofreelist. I still go to school (yeah, that kind of explains the bad grammar, poor vocabulary and lack of fluency). Loving films this much has inevitably provoked my longing to one day make my own film. And I'm not talking some five minute Hi8 video parade of tomato sauce and plastic water pistols; I mean an actual, professionally made film shot on celluloid — short if not full-length (hey, if Glendyn Ivin, a young bloke from everyday Brunswick can win the Palme D'or at Cannes, that should at least give me a right to dream about it). So, whenever I'm bored, I like gathering ideas, and asking myself repeatedly: "what would make a good film?". Of course, these ideas would be heavily influenced by established styles, the predominant inspirations in this case being Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch.

Okay, my dearest apologies for turning half of this 21 Grams review into my life story, but it's really important that you know this because then you will understand what I got out of the film. So anyway, I finally stuck to a particular idea and long story short I began seeing my idea being transformed into a film scene by scene inside my head.

After I watched the first ten minutes or so of 21 Grams, I was stunned. To describe how I felt, I could only say that it was like director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga had cut open my head, stripped my brain of how I'd imagine my ideal film would be made and put it on screen. Everything, from the mute opening, to the opening title, to the abrupt cuts, to the non-linear story, to the hand-held camerawork, to the mellow guitar music, to the grainy colours, to the despressing atmosphere, to casting Naomi Watts (being a typical teen, I kind of became obsessed with her after Mulholland Dr. (2001)) etc. I mean everything I'd imagined in my fanstasies (except for the actual story itself) was being played before my eyes. As I watched on, it was almost like I was given a preview of my own style of film, or what I would've wanted my own film to look like.

I'm starting to sound like a wanker who reckons he had this idea long before these Mexican fellows and could make an equally good film. Hell, even I have to laugh at myself for insinuating that. But no, that's not what I'm saying. When you're like me, with your head in clouds half the time, you dream about stuff, and I've always been yearning to know what my film would look like if it were ever to made. It's almost as if fate had led me to 21 Grams (now I'm really starting to sound like a wanker).

The best way to describe the film's structure: if the chronological order was a deck of cards, it would've been given a good shuffle. At first it looks as though the scenes, abruptly cut from one to the next, are coming at random; a bit of the middle, a bit of the start, a bit of the end, a bit of the middle again, etc. I must warn you, if you aren't concentrating, you will get confused. But watching up until the last few scenes, you'll realise that it wasn't at random. The film had structure all along; I saw it as a unique 'question-answer' style where things left unanswered at the start were answered by other 'random' pieces throughout the course of the film. And it ultimately turns out to be easy to comprehend if you just simply pay attention.

The music, mostly guitar and accordion, is mellow yet depressing. It's only played occasionally, but when it is, it masters the atmosphere. The mostly hand-held cinematography enhances the film's brutal realism immensely, as does the faint colours which strike up the depressing reality of the situation. What can I say about the acting in this film? Sean Penn — amazing, better than he was in Mystic River (2003). Benecio Del Toro — amazing, better than he was in Traffic (2000). Naomi Watts — abso-fucking-lutely amazing, better than she was in Mulholland Dr.. (which is one hell of an achievement by the way). Despite all-around excellence in the leads, their big names overshadow an equally excellent supporting cast, most notably the spouses: Brit Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays Penn's wife, and Melissa Leo, who plays Del Toro's wife. All the other minor characters, regardless of how insignificant, including the kids, are also incredibly well cast and acted.

I can't really think of anything else to add. This will inevitably be compared to Traffic; 21 Grams uses a very similar style, albeit much more satisfying. If Del Toro can score an Oscar for that, it'd be a crime if he didn't for this. Focus Features sure has scored two big fat points from me — Lost in Translation (2003) and now this. Hopefully this wonderful indie company will continue to pump out masterpieces like these two. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) now looks very promising.

em_fiction gives this movie 10 out of 10.
Review created on Tue 27 Jan 2004

Movie review statistics

Number of reviews: 2
Average rating: 9.00
Lowest rating: 8 (by pearly)
Highest rating: 10 (by em_fiction)
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