16 April 2003 | Uqbar
Disturbing, engaging work
This is the kind of gritty, fuzz-free reality drama that keeps you musing about it long past the ending credits. It is unsparing in its depiction of all the light and dark sides of the human psyche, from racism to passion to insularity and even corpulence, mounting these on a platform so stark and unambiguous that the audience is not left with many choices - the reactions evoked are exactly the ones intended to be evoked, oscillating between disgust, outrage, sympathy, tenderness and occasionally, even a surreptitious smile.
Most of the characters in the movie suffer somewhat from a lack of complexity, which is compensated for by casting them into circumstantial conflict to create the dramatic tension (a husband is electrocuted, a child dies, another child sends a bullet through his heart and into the couch behind, and so on). This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially because the remarkable performances (particularly from Halle Berry) validate this ploy. The exception to this, however, is the character of Hank Grotowski, played by Billy Bob Thornton. Billy Bob succeeds in imparting a subtle gray shade to this seemingly cardboard-cutout poster-boy-for-the-old-bigoted-south character that makes you hesitate from accepting him at face value. Is this simply about a saturnine, jaded racist being transformed by true love? Well, yes, that's part of it - the obvious part. But something keeps nagging you, preventing you from accepting this linear, justifiable inference, making you want to probe deeper, discover the reasons he has turned out this way, and even, in a perverse way, rationalize them. Is it just the provincial social climate? Is it the long proximity to his bigoted dotard of a father (played admirably by Peter Boyle)? Is he really that way or is he simply going with the flow? No simple explanation seems satisfactory - and the credit for this questioning, this need for deconstruction, goes to Billy Bob's nuanced performance.
All in all, beside the fact that some of the scenes may unsettle the squeamish, and that some promising characters like that of Grotowski's dispirited, conflicted son Sonny (played by Heath Ledger) were knocked off too early, the picture satisfies most norms for a good cinema experience - it makes you think, weep, squirm, analyze, rationalize, everything but walk out before it is over. In other words, it is what good cinema is about.