It’s Favorite Film Friday which means we’re taking a look at another one of my favorite films of all time. Sometimes movies hit you upon your second viewing, and sometimes it actually takes a person years to fall in love with a movie. There are some films that I didn’t appreciate upon first viewing, like Lost in Translation, because of where I was in my life personally that actually end up on my favorite film list – but that’s not the case with 21 Grams.
I remember seeing this film in a small theater in the LA valley close to where I live now. It came out at a time where arthouse cinema was really on a boom. There was no streaming services and TV wasn’t quite in its golden age yet. Many people just went to the movies out of habit and picked something to see when they got there. I had no expectations of 21 Grams going in. I hadn’t heard anything about it, I had seen 30 second spots for it but that was about it and man was I blown away.
Here’s the trailer for the film in case you haven’t seen it:
If you’re not compelled to watch it from the trailer for any reason just do yourself a favor and watch it anyways, it’s amazing.
First of all, everyone – and I mean EVERYONE in this film is amazing. Of course the leads are incredible but the cast they got for secondary characters was amazing. I mean Danny Houston, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Eddie Marsan, Melissa Leo – those are people who have SMALL roles in the film. The rawness of the people and the choices they make in their performances are second to none.
Even people who only have one or two lines are great. There literally isn’t a bad moment of acting (or a moment of mediocre acting) in the entire film from anyone, not even from an extra. I have to admit on my first feature there are a couple one liners or smaller moments where I wish we had time to do over – with 21 Grams it’s just perfect and sucks you in because you believe that everyone in this film is 100% real. Such a breath of fresh air from some of the huge tentpole franchises being made now.
Constant Handheld Camera
To add to the groundedness of the film, the entire movie is shot handheld. What this really does for the film from a story point is it gets you into the intimate spaces of these people’s lives that I don’t think a tripod or a dolly could do. There’s just a sense, a subconscious sense, that the camera operator was dancing with the actors during every scene.
It’s never shaky handheld camera work, it’s just a floating sense of closeness that the camera has with its performers almost like a magnet that’s drawn to human emotion. I’m a huge fan of handheld cameras and the cinema verite look and Alejandro G. Iñárritu is one of the great masters of this style. If you ever consider shooting your movie handheld I would say that this film is a must watch for the style.
The other thing that this handheld style allows for is a plethora of coverage and a complete freedom of angles. You can break the 180 rule a lot easier in a hand held environment than you can when your camera is locked off on sticks. As a result there’s a sense that the camera can go anywhere and be anywhere and in certain scenes it feels like they got 90 angles on something and in others the camera just holds on a face for an extended period of time.
Along with the handheld work goes a sense of natural lighting. I am assuming that most scenes had minimal to no light and I’m a huge fan of getting into a space and just working with actors and the operator. I think it’s when you can get some of your best work done and this is a film that really showcases that minimal style.
The film follows really one story of someone who gets a heart transplant but what makes it so interesting is the way they treat all the characters in the story. The donor of the heart, the recipient, the recipient’s wife, the donor’s widow, the man who causes the accident that killed the donor, they all have real lives and struggles. Nobody in this film is bad and nobody is good. Everything is layered with complex human stories and ALL of them are relatable.
Right from the start we jump from one person’s story to the next so we, as the audience, are kept on our toes, forced to keep several storylines in our head from the first minute. This keeps the film from ever getting boring or slowing down. And….
The film is completely non-linear. If you haven’t seen Babel or Amores Perros you probably won’t be expecting the level of non-linear cutting this film has. I can’t think of many films that take the non-linear freedom to this extreme. It’s not like Pulp Fiction where you stick with one story line for fifteen minutes before jumping backwards and forwards in time. You literally will spend one minute with some characters at times before jumping to an entirely different part of the timeline and then two minutes later jump to yet another part of the timeline.
This back and forth jumping around with multiple storytelling was a huge influence on me as a writer. I’ve written a couple scripts that have this style of pacing. One Who We Are is a drama and the other 3 to a Grave is a crime thriller. You can click on either of the film’s titles if you want to download the scripts and have a read. What I found so liberating about the non-linear sequence as a filmmaker is that you are free to cut straight to the emotional impact. It’s the film equivalent of stream of consciousness writing. If done poorly it just looks lazy but when it’s done correctly you start seeing connections from one thing to another in much more impactful ways because you don’t have the boring expositional scenes that are sometimes necessary to get your audience up to speed.
Big Philosophical Questions in 21 Grams
My favorite part about the film though isn’t the acting or the directing or the cinematography or even the structure, it’s the writing of the film that really hit me the most. The big philisophical questions that the film asks about life, grief, loss, anger, violence and the way it examines the human experience that just knocked me on my ass.
I saw the film with a friend of mine who is NOT a cinephile. His favorite movies are usually predictable sci-fi films and action blockbusters but we both came out of the movie theater with the same reaction – like someone just jolted our soul with an electrical shock. I took him into the theater with a little resistance and I remember him saying that if there are ever any movies like that one he’d go see it in a heartbeat.
I tried to explain to him that that feeling he was experiencing was what independent filmmakers are constantly chasing. It doesn’t come often and we’re usually let down quite a bit by the smaller films we see but every once in a while a great film will sneak up on you, make you think and energize your soul and 21 Grams is one of those movies for me.