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21 GRAMS (2003)

21 GRAMS is a dramatic tapestry that weaves together the life threads of an ex-con, a widowed woman, and a fatally ill mathematician. With one fateful day aligning these three lives together, it will be a continual struggle thereafter for the three to learn how to cope with one another, and maybe forgive each other, as their lives inch away, gram by gram…

The cast includes: Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts, and Sean Penn.

Written by: Guillermo Arriaga.

Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

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Genre: Drama, Thriller, Crime.

Tagline: "They say everyone loses 21 grams right before they die…
but how much is in those 21 grams? How much is lost?"

Rated: R for language, sexuality, drug references, and some violence.

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Highly dependent on flashbacks and incessant time jumps, 21 GRAMS pans back and forth between past, present, and future to weave together a mosaic concerning the lives of three people: suburbanite Christina Peck (Naomi Watts), mathematician John Rivers (Sean Penn), and ex-con Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro).

The film begins by opening with the unsettling fact that Christina is a struggling drug addict and her life, for some reason, is in painful turmoil. As the story progresses through flashbacks and flash-forwards, the audience realizes that Christina is a happy suburban wife and mother of two girls, as well as the drug-addict girlfriend of John Rivers: the question remains... who came first?

Enter Jack Jordon whose God-fearing overtly Christian faith has him preaching down the halls to all he sees. Extending his 'religious services' to his home, Jack does his best to forget his rough past as an ex-con and raise his family right. But Jack’s zealous faith provokes tension at home; moreover, he is constantly struggling to stay away from crime and the bottle. After winning a truck from his local church raffle, all seems to look on the bright side, that is, until one fateful night he ends up hitting a man and his two daughters, killing all three.

Meanwhile Christina Peck lay grief-stricken on the hospital floor, having just lost her two daughters and found her husband fatally wounded from a deadly car accident. With her life unraveling before her eyes she makes the crucial decision to terminate her husband's life-support comatose state and donate his heart to another needy patient: John Rivers.

Receiving his heart through an anonymous donor program, the once fatally ill mathematician John Rivers rests uneasy until he can locate the family who saved his life. Hiring a detective to help him locate the family, he instead finds a woman who has been widowed and left motherless after losing her entire family to a car crash caused by ex-con Jack Jordon.

Determined to make contact, Rivers abandons his personal responsibilities and leaves his British wife to struggle with her own desires to have a child, which have proved in vain many a times before. With her hopes resting on artificial insemination she urges John to agree to the process so that the two can start a family of their own. Nevertheless there is something very wrong with their relationship and the film slowly reveals the constant tension between husband and wife as a long standing problem resulting from character incompatibility. As John stays away from home for longer periods of time he begins to place himself within Christina's 'social centers'.

Having turned to the bottle and drugs for comfort, Christina copes with her loss as best as she can. But her daily trips to the gym and nightly adventures in night-club bathrooms only provoke further depression. As John attempts to intervene and make conversation he finds himself struggling to tell Christina about the truth behind his new heart as well as wrestling to suppress his own feelings for the heartbroken woman. As their friendship slowly progresses into a tragically unstable relationship, Christina vacillates between temporary happiness with John and a severe depression set in by the memory of her lost life.

But John is struggling too; his body is rejecting his new heart, that is, Christina's husband's heart. Without agreeing to turn himself back into the hospital and await another donor there is no guarantee for life. But the catch is that once back in the hospital, there is no guarantee the next transplant will take successfully either. Determined to die living, John hides his secret from Christina and his wife as the two women struggle with their own problems.

But Jack Jordon is struggling as well. His faith has grown rocky behind the cold prison walls and his love for his wife has turned cold, wrought by shame for the consequences of that one night many years ago. Doing her best to get Jack out of prison early, Jack's wife holds on to her love for her husband and family as best as she can. But back home Jack's faith is rediscovered and his children, though young, can't seem to look at him without shuddering: his hypocrisy is written all over his face. Unable to bear the shame Jack leaves his family one more time, and heads for the desert where he will earn his keep and live humbly in a run-down motel.

His life seems secure enough, empty, but secure, that is, until Christina's painful memories determine her to try to kill the murderer of her family. Employing the help of John, the two set out to find Jack and close the final chapter of Christina’s former life. Meanwhile John’s wife has packed up and moved back to England, still determined to inseminate John’s donated sperm. Likewise, John's health is progressively failing and Christina’s drug use is anything but conquered. A dramatic climax unties all three characters yet again with fateful consequences for all, particularly one. With the dramatic monologue about 'losing 21 grams before you die', the film concludes with as equally dark a conclusion as it opened with its somber commencement.

21 GRAMS is a powerful film with gripping direction and acting on behalf of all involved. Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro lose themselves in their roles and expose the nitty gritty ugly truths behind the fragility of life. Though the film does reside in a realm where heavy content never leaves the screen, this ‘depressing’ film is nonetheless powerful and intensely moving. Moreover, the structure of 21 GRAMS, though confusing, attests to the genius of its direction: think of the film as a cinematic version of William Faulkner, particularly "Sound and the Fury". But the powerful effect of time-skipping only renders the film more effective and its chaotic structure mirrors that of both the lives and lifestyles of each of the three characters. With much drugs, alcohol, depression, and psychological depression involved, the characters are anything but linear, and the film’s structure appropriately mirrors the mental mayhem of its protagonists.

Undeniably the content is heavy. But, there are some powerful life lessons to take away from the film. That isn't to say that this film is by any means preachy either. Simply, 21 GRAMS exposes how tenuous both the life of man and his bond to mankind are. Life is precious, ideologies are abstract, and life goes on, with or without you: these are all heavy themes powerfully suggested throughout the film. Depicted in an undeniably heavy way, 21 GRAMS wraps you up in its drama and spits you out thinking anew about your own responsibilities in life. Though clearly for older audiences, 21 GRAMS is a profoundly insightful look into human causality and the realization that our personal struggles are only important insofar as we are affected by them: the film dramatically exposes the undeniable truth that men are but 'shadows and dust' in the grand scheme of things: those 21 grams may be all we can call our own.

Main Characters:

Naomi Watts plays Christina Peck, an upper middle-class suburbanite who is left to cope with the tragic deaths of her husband and two daughters, who died from a fatal car accident.

Sean Penn plays Paul Rivers, a fatally ill mathematician who is coping with his health and his British wife’s incessant desire to attempt motherhood, yet again.

Benicio Del Toro plays Jack Jordan, a God-fearing ex-con whose struggle to raise his family proves more difficult after he finds himself in an accidental car crash involving the death of a man and two girls.