Here is a darkly interior story that moves in unexpected ways. When you have a redneck in the deep south, one who was brought up by a father who was one, and a string of fathers before him, you don't anticipate a change of heart or social consciouness. But, when it happens, destinies change.
Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) is that redneck, and he runs the execution detail at the Georgia prison where he works as a corrections officer. He's done it for some time and hews closely to the practices and protocols of this duty, this time on the condemned killer Lawrence Musgrove (Sean "Puffy" Combs). In his detail is Sonny Grotowski, his son, of whom he expects much and in whom he's constantly disappointed, both at work and at home.
At home, Sonny has had the temerity to invite local black kids, the sons of a neighbor, to visit, and Hank is having none of that, firing his shotgun in the air to chase them off his property. At work, Hank is mortified when Sonny falters while walking the condemned man to the electric chair and, after the ritual is over, he gives his son what to.
But, anger isn't dissipated. When they get home, Buck Grotowski (Peter Boyle), an emphysema patient dependant on an oxygen bottle and his doting and increasingly rebellious son and grandson, is none too happy about Sonny's failure to walk in the steps of his forebears.
For reasons we can't reveal here, Hank's thought processes lead him to a surprising decision to seek another job. Unemployed, he then steps into a fateful connection with the widow of the executed man, Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry), a woman who has reached an emotional rock bottom with even more tests of her strength and will to come.
There is much that can't be said here, so surprising are the string of developments that play out unforced, and in ways that are as incredible as they are natural. This has much to do with the power of a most unusual screenplay by Milo Addica, Will Rokos, masterful directorial control by Marc Forster over such unique possibilities of human behavior, and top-notch performances by the entire cast.
Though Thornton's character and style here is as though he just stepped off the set of "The Man Who Wasn't There", his quiet, understated Hank, who does things and has things happen to him that he would never have guessed beforehand, is just right. Halle Berry who can play the alluring trollope with the best of them, perhaps one of the most beautiful women in film today, digs into very deep emotional territory for Leticia, and she's a relevation all the way through.
Peter Boyle as the patriarchal hateful redneck of the neighborhood is insidiously convincing. Heath Ledger does well to convince that he's not just another pretty face in his good portrayal of the first family member who doesn't just accept the smug superiority complexes of his elders.
As picture comparisons go, it makes for an interesting one with Alan Parker's "Angela's Ashes" and Stephen Frear's "Liam" which treated the brutalities of life with little hope of emerging from deprivation, leaving you with hopelessness. "Monster's Ball", on the other hand, shows that even the most luckless of lives hold possibilities for powerful turns of fate. Perhaps this is a difference between American and British viewpoints on societal potentials.
For those who are on the cusp of deciding to put this movie at the top of their viewing list, I'll add that there are some rather steamy love making scenes that are more erotic than prurient and which help to convey the notion that the mutual fulfilling of basic needs can lead to a sort of salvation. Finding that salvation amidst the dreary garbage of life is the point, after all is said and done, and this team exploits the material in understated, unmannered ways. Their achievement is a thinking person's film that is worthy of positive critical attention this season.
We laud Lion's Gate Films for recognizing the worth of this project after it made the rounds for some six years. We owe 'em. Other studios didn't want to touch these themes, uniquely as they are handled, and it took some courage to commit to what others feared. May it win recognition from the academy and a payback to reward their good judgement.
Estimated cost: $4,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $14,000,000.