21 Grams

21 Grams is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2003 multi-award winning film which depicts three characters whose lives become messily interwoven after an horrific car accident. Sean Penn plays Paul, a terminally ill mathmetician, Naomi Watts as Cristina, a recovering drug addict family woman who’s life is destroyed by the car accident and Benicio Del Toro as Jack, a born again Christian with a criminal past. The film is played out jumbled, it’s non-linear structure, at times difficult to follow, but cleverly 21 Grams isn’t about plot, you only really need to know minor details of the plot and these are explained clearly. The non-linear structure, I feel is more reflective of the complicated nature of the characters lives. Paul intelligent and with buckets of potential facing his own mortality, Cristina lives the perfect suburban family existence whilst secreting away a past of addiction and Jack facing his own struggle with his very visible criminal past and his selected future of religion.


The very title of 21 Grams suggests that it’s a character film. Based on the now disregarded medical research which suggests that the soul is a tangible element, evidenced by the fact that the human body upon death becomes 21 grams lighter, suggesting that the soul leaves the body at death. The very nature of this, the title, the implication of soul being a quantifiable and in existence is on display throughout the film. To put it crudely, you are hit from every angle with moral decisions and ethics, from death, to organ donation, to abortion, IVF treatment, bereavement and relationships. Each character is in an extreme situation, forcing them to show their true selves, their true decisions and repercussions of those decisions.

All the main actors in 21 Grams are superb, in every way. I’ve always been a fan of Benicio Del Toro, but his performance in this is outstanding. Naomi Watts plays a figure of tormented motherhood and femininity, again just brilliantly. And Sean Penn arguably the highlight of his career to date, plays Paul with brilliance. It’s only once in a while in Hollywood cinema where you get the opportunity to truly appreciate such fantastic acting, and rarely is a film where all the main characters are perfectly superb. Truly brilliant acting is only noticed when you compare it to mediocre or bad acting, and these actors abilities are taken for granted, 21 Grams is a wonderful reminder of talent available.

Sean Penn as Paul

Sean Penn as Paul

21 Grams is an ultimately grim film with flashes of happiness and joy. It’s not a comedy, it’s not a romance, it’s through and through drama so don’t expect any comic relief or to finish watching it feeling upbeat. It’s a depressing film, but I’ve always liked these types of films. I think they are so important for exploring humanity. They are true reflections of human nature, most people at some point in their life, will experience something so horrific and tragic, they wonder how they are to deal with such an event. And not to say that films show the way for how to deal with these experiences, but they are able to create a unique connection between audience and film. There will always be one person in an audience who can say ‘I know exactly what she is going through, I did that too’ and so on.

I don’t want to go into the plot too much as it will spoil the film if you haven’t seen it, but I’d highly recommend it. The awards and nominations it received were well deserved. If you liked 21 Grams, the next film to check out, by the same director is Babel. It’s clear to see that González Iñárritu has a massively coherent understanding of character development and story. Very well made film, by a very talented director.

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