21 Grams Review

The Film

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu made quite a stir with his debut film Amores Perros, dubbed the Mexican Pulp Fiction its three disparate, but overlapping, stories made the comparisons obvious though ultimately they only drew upon the structure of the film rather than its content. With 21 Grams Inarritu has taken that structure one step further, rather than separating the stories into clear individual chapters he has thrown them all together, cutting back and forth through the length of the film. Although they begin as three separate stories, as the film goes on the cutting decreases and their lives converge, giving sense to the film.

From the outset the structure is there to beguile you, this isn’t a film with a slowly evolving plot, drawing you in as things get more complex, but a film that throws you in the middle of things, with no context to guide you, and as such any more than a cursory explanation of the film does it a disservice. The protagonists are obvious, Paul(Sean Penn) is a man waiting to die, unless he receives a transplant, and very soon. Jack (Benicio Del Toro) is a man trying to turn his life around, an ex-convict who certainly carries the look, that is spending his days at a Christian centre trying to stop kids from walking the path he did, but being new to religion he hasn’t yet developed the patience of a saint necessary for the calling. Christine (Naomi Watts) is a wife and mother, and a recovering drug addict, saved from her addiction by motherhood she walks a narrow margin between her old and new lives. They’re to be connected by a tragedy, although they may not realise it to begin with, which will dramatically change their lives though whether it will be for the better or worse may not be entirely clear cut.

That’s really all you can say about the plot, it will take you the best part of twenty minutes to get through that much, but there will be plenty more thrown at the screen that will confound you. The most confusing part is that you’re never quite sure where in the timeline you are, sometimes it jumps forward, sometimes it jumps back, most of the time you’re not sure of which way it’s going, a problem which is compounded by Inarritu never really setting a point at which the story begins. If that sounds confusing, it is, and Inarritu walks a very fine line between intriguing and irritating, and although largely managing to stay on the right side of that divide this still isn’t a film for people who have trouble paying attention. Although missing a segment may not seem that important initially as you skip to another seemingly unrelated one, there isn’t a lot of fat in the script, so everything will have a point eventually.

21 Grams gained 5 nominations for acting between the Oscars and the BAFTAs, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts were nominated at both, and whilst Sean Penn was only nominated at the BAFTAs for 21 Grams, that was largely because he was nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars for Mystic River, which he won. That’s an impressive clutch, and it’s easy to see why. 21 Grams is a film all about the acting, there isn’t a scene based on flashy effects or witty dialogue, it’s a heavy going film and the vast majority of the weight sits on the shoulders of the three leads. A weak performance from any of them would have destroyed the film, but Inarritu has chosen his cast very wisely and they are all more than capable of carrying their burdens and, importantly, bringing a brutal honesty to them. 21 Grams is rarely a happy film, and Inarritu’s often takes us into very private moments, so much so that it not only feels voyeuristic but sometimes downright invasive, and it can be uncomfortable to watch such moments. This effect is amplified by Inarritu’s use of the handheld camera, its constant unsteady view feeling like an invisible observer on proceedings, rather than a window into them. It’s not the horribly shaky handheld style shown in the likes of The Blair Witch Project, the effect is far more subtle, and far more effective, drawing you in rather than throwing you headlong which is rather fortunate as the structure is dizzying enough without the camera work completely disorientating you.

Inarritu has managed to dodge the trap the befalls so many foreign directors making their English language debut, and not simply imitated his previous work, but only just. The story is easily different enough to avoid comparison with Amores Perros, but the structure is very similar – if somewhat evolved – but it isn’t a style I can see him changing any time soon. Seeing the way he works, the confounding structure just seems to be how he thinks, he even says elsewhere on this disc, movies shouldn’t end, because life doesn’t end, it goes on. It won’t surprise me a bit if his films become even less linear, and harder to understand, and yet still manage to be incredibly gripping because what 21 Grams does make abundantly clear is that Inarritu has a fantastic talent for directing, both by extracting affecting performances from his cast and by weaving a gripping story.

The Picture

21 Grams is a film with very distinct look, reminiscent of Steven Soderberg’s Mexican portion of Traffic the film stock used is grainy, bright scenes are often over-exposed, giving a real feeling of heat, and although the internals are much darker along with being muted, the grain is persistent throughout. It makes it a difficult film to encode, but the lack of extras on the disc gives the main feature plenty of space, and as such the transfer is up to the usual high standards of DVD, even with the difficult grain to deal with.

The Sound

Presented with the choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 the decision to include the DTS track would seem to me to be an attempt to make the disc a more tempting purchase due to the lack of special features. The differences between the tracks are negligible, as the film is largely dialogue based and the soundtrack sparse, neither track is given very much to do at all. Whilst there are some nice ambient effects, that’s all you can really expect from the track, but really, that’s all the film needed.

The Extras

Behind the Scenes

Thankfully this isn’t the kind of behind the scenes documentary I’ve come to expect on bare bones discs, whilst there are a couple of short interview snippets that reek of the electronic press kit thankfully most of this is real behind the scenes footage and on-set soundbites. It’s startling to watch Inarritu work, at one point he’s running through a scene with another crew member, trying to decide how it will play out, but remember this is an Inarritu scene, so it’s actually shots from half a dozen locations with many different actors all cut together, and he runs through permutations as if he has every relevant scene laid out in front of him, grabbing ideas left and right, it really is impressive to see how his mind works, and how easily he can grapple with the multi threaded nature of the film. Although it only runs for 20 minutes, there’s much more of interest here than the simple title would imply.

UK Theatrical Trailer

A rather standard trailer, it gives away a little too much for my liking, though by normal standards it's restrained, the confounding nature of the film certainly makes you wait a while before you realise some of the things here and the closing line - Who will be next? - amost gives the impression of a mystery that isn't really there.


21 grams is a fantastic film, the acting is stunning and the story – largely because of the way it is told, but also because of its content – is gripping. The disc however is weak, with only the short documentary and trailer to pad the listing, which is particularly disappointing given the rumours of a full-blown special edition in the works. It’s becoming increasingly common for distributors to deliberately produce a substandard initial release, and it’s a disheartening practice that makes the purchase of any bare bones (or close) first release difficult to recommend. The film is fantastic but buyer beware, those that fear double-dipping may want to avoid this release.

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