Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 125 Minutes
Release Date: March 16, 2004

“How many lives do we live? How many times do we die? They say we all lose 21 grams at the exact moment of our death. Everyone.”

Film ****

I remember my first viewing of Christopher Nolan's Memento as if it were yesterday. I remember being nothing short of blown away by the structure of narrative I was experiencing for the first time. By way of a strictly unconventional style of cinematic storytelling, the story of a man on a quest for revenge became one of the most haunting and powerful film experiences I had ever endured. And no film since has dared to even match its narrative strengths, except 21 Grams.

Although the storytelling structure could be generally inspired by Nolan's film, it doesn't copy it at all. Instead, it adapts the unconventional structure and creates its very own fascinating grounds for storytelling, with a whole new set of rules. If Memento was a piece revealed in a backwards format, 21 Grams is indeed the jigsaw puzzle version of the format. Like Nolan's film, it makes for an entirely original and truly unforgettable movie experience. Though the style may throw some off a bit, it doesn't leave any details out, and brings everything full circle to a most incredible end.

The centerpiece of the story surrounds three different characters whose lives will, at one point, intersect as the result of a most tragic incident. I'll do my best by explaining as much as I can without revealing crucial plot details. Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a math professor who is in dire need of a heart transplant. Paul's personal life seems to be as close to a possible flatline as Paul himself does. His marriage to Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) hasn't been happy lately. Even in Paul's terminal state, she urges him to donate sperm as sort of a last resort of having a baby. But Paul, understandably, wants to live long enough to see the offspring.

Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) is a reformed ex convict who now helping to preach the word of God, which has helped him stay off of drugs and alcohol thoroughly. However, there are instances in his family life which give hint that the past may have not left him entirely. Though he appears to be fully recovered of any wrongful actions, his wife is nothing short of doubtful of the illusion of his cure.

Lastly, there is Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts), a recovering drug addict who now has a husband on her side, as well as two young daughters. The strong love and support of her husband is what has successfully helped her kick the habit, as she continues to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Because of this, her life as a whole is becoming more and more stable. Then a horrifically tragic incident occurs which in time will link each of these characters together, for reasons of love, revenge, and pure redemption.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who also helped to make the highly acclaimed and similarly themed Amores Perros in 2000, have woven together a film that is endlessly absorbing and gripping. Inarritu has incorporated a visual style to the film that is one for the history books. Applying a look which is at times dark and grainy, along with a desaturated array of colors, Inarritu does nothing short of upping the ante in terms of emotional impact. Hardly has there been a film where the visual style reflects the all around tone of the story so flawlessly.

As for the three leads, they each deliver career crowning performances, as well as three of the best performances of the year. Penn, Del Toro, and Watts are each given moments in the film which deliver an outstanding impact. They each convey an extraordinary sense of pure realism in the characters. Usually, I am poised to pick a single performance which I found to be the best, but that isn't the case here. The three leads are equally powerful, dynamic, and each worthy of strong acclaim.

With the power of its dark moody tone, absorbing story, and emotionally charged performances, 21 Grams adds up to one of 2003's most stunning and unforgettable motion pictures. Challenging the art of storytelling the same way Christopher Nolan did with Memento, this is a masterful piece of cinematic work that is sure to be studied and cherished for years to come.

Video ****

Universal has thoughtfully embraced the distinct notions of the visual style in this movie has elevated it into a memorable anamorphic transfer. So it goes without saying that when you watch this movie, do not be thrown off by the occasional dark and grainy look because the look is very much intentional. In addition, the entire feature looks dynamic and incredible to match for the challenging aspects of transferring such a distinct looking film to the format.

Audio ***

The 5.1 mix offers quite a strong audio presentation for a film that although is mostly driven by dialogue, is occasionally powered by a few individual moments that allow the level of range to come alive. As for the dialogue, it is delivered in a most clear and strong mode, and the music playback of both the mellow score and several songs, including those played in a nightclub scene give the sound an occasional boost. A DTS track is also included.

Features 1/2*

Unfortunately the weak spot of the disc. All that is included is a few bonus Focus Features trailers which precede the movie, including the upcoming theatrical release Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.


21 Grams is a movie experience that is to be remembered in the same vein a first viewing of such narrative-challenging classics as Memento and Pulp Fiction. Both visually striking and incredibly acted, it is one of the all around best films of 2003.