Hank Grotowski (played by Billy Bob Thornton) lives in the southern states of USA with his tough, life-hardened, racist father, Buck (by Peter Boyle). Hank has inherited many hard-nosed life attitudes from his father, but he’s also has gained his own level of sensitivity. As a prison officer, Hank’s carrying on the vocation started by his father, so too is Hank’s son, Sonny (by Heath Ledger). Both Sonny and Hank work on death row at the correctional facility nearby. One day on their shift, death row inmate Lawrence Musgrove (by Sean Coombs) is put to execution and this deeply troubles Sonny. As if things aren’t difficult enough at the Grotowski home, Sonny decides that the trauma of death row is getting too great so he takes a dramatic stand against it. Soon after, circumstances mean that Hank meets Musgrove’s widow Leticia (by Halle Berry) and their son Tyrell (by Coronji Calhoun). Leticia is a strong but bitter woman who is struggling to make ends meet to support her son and to deal with the grief of losing her husband in such circumstances. Hank is ignorant of the fact that she is Musgroves’ widow and he is drawn to her, but this is difficult for him bearing in mind his own views and the fact that they are in such an openly racist community. His feelings towards Leticia are a blend of grief, guilt, sadness and curiosity and they slowly develop a connection, which causes Hank to reconsider his own life and his attitudes.
This film presents some very tough and controversial issues – but in an honest and open style which is as refreshing as it is shocking – there are some quite violent dramatic scenes, but this is not gratuitous, it fits with the entire story well. The performances by both Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry are excellent and honest. At the time, a media fuss was made regarding the fact that Halle Berry was prepared to take on this tough role and appear on screen “bare faced” with very little make up and adornments. When you meet her as Leticia you will see why this is important and how marvellous she is. In fact, in the 2002 awards, Berry won the Academy Award (Oscar) for this performance – as she stated in her acceptance speech, she proudly received the Oscar as “a woman of colour”, particularly for this role. The foibles of the Grotowski family are compelling – their interactions, family practices and their lifestyle is just jaw-dropping in places, but still not so outrageous that you don’t believe it is realistic. The mood created by the scene structure, cinematography and directing is fabulous. Sean Coombs is very good as Musgrove and if you’d like to understand why people say with sadness that Heath Ledger had such a huge potential talent and he was gone way too soon, then take a look at his performance here – it’s understated (as his work often is) but totally marvellous.
This movie will certainly leave an impression on you.
Made in 2001. Directed by Marc Forster.