21 Grams tells three stories that interlock in many ways, and it treats a wide variety of subjects, as the above keywords suggest.

Nevertheless, at the center of the film, and driving its action, is Paul (Sean Penn), a man in his middle years who gets a critically needed heart transplant and then sets out to discover, against the conventions of anonymous donorship, exactly whose heart he has inherited.

Paul’s quest brings him into close and complex contact with the other two main characters and their stories--Cristina (Naomi Watts), the grieving widow of the man whose heart Paul now has, and Jack (Benicio Del Toro), a reformed ex-con who now runs his life, and his family, by strict Christian dictates, and who is, through an accident, responsible for the death of the heart donor.


This film treats very large themes of life and death, fate and chance, etc. Its visual tone is gritty, its emotional tone sad. Most of the characters are taking drugs or trying to give them up. Our response to these things is complicated by Iñárritu's frequent skipping back and forth in time. Essentially, however, the film plays out the idea that an organ is more than biological tissue. Especially if it is a heart, it comes with values, and even other lives, attached. (The donated heart, of course, inevitably mixes death and life.)

Sperm, too, are a subject of negotiation, as Paul refuses an old lover access to a sperm sample as she contemplates surgery to restore her fertility, yet winds up impregnating the widow of the man whose heart enables that act. Twists like that are typical of this complicated and provocative film. The film's title comes from the folklore that every human body loses 21 grams of weight at the moment of death.


Written by Guillermo Arriaga. Numerous nominations and awards for the three major actors and for the director. Distributed by Focus Features (US).

Primary Source

Universal Home Entertainment