Even After Two Decades, 21 Grams Still Packs an Emotional Punch
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s English-language debut demonstrates his cinematic genius.
On November 21, 2003, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams introduced American audiences to an extraordinary new talent. Starring Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts, and Sean Penn, the poetic thriller constructs a mesmerizing cinematic puzzle that explores how fate, coincidence, and hope connect to each other. “You won't come out unaffected,” The New York Times wrote. “The depths of intimacy that the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu plumbs here are so rarely touched by filmmakers that 21 Grams is tantamount to the discovery of a new country.”
In the years since its release, Iñárritu has become one of cinema’s most celebrated directors, having won the Academy Award® for Best Director for both Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and The Revenant. But it was 21 Grams, as Sight and Sound later wrote, that spotlighted him as “a poet of the visible world.”
The story was originally written by Guillermo Arriaga in Spanish and set in Mexican City, but filmmakers decided to bring Iñárritu's vision to America and changed the setting to Memphis with an American cast. Crafted as a cinematic triptych, the film tells the story of three separate characters whose connection is revealed as a sort of puzzle. Penn plays Paul, a math professor in need of a heart transplant. Watts is a recovering addict attempting to piece together her life after her husband and child are killed in a hit-and-run accident. And Del Toro plays Jack, a born-again ex-con desperate for repentance. “To watch these three—working alone and in tandem—is to experience the strange, at times frightening alchemy of screen acting,” The Los Angeles Times wrote about the film’s core cast.
In 2003, USA Today wrote, “This is cinematic art in its highest form,” and for The Washington Post, “The movie itself is a miracle: tough, smart, relentless, provocative and, above all, serious.” The awe and wonder that greeted the film two decades ago still rings true today. “This is a film about the grand passions that afflict people irrespective of place or time,” The Standard wrote nearly a decade after its release. And more recently, MovieWeb named 21 Grams one of three best English-language debuts for being “moving and brutally insightful into human relationships”