A chamber drama about race and romance in the deep South, Monster's Ball has the feel of a
European art film thanks to Swiss-born director Marc Forster's approach to the material. Rather than
wallow in the subject matter, he attempts to establish a mood that carries the film and eventually allows
his two leading actors to create something approximating three-dimensional beings. But until the last third
of the film, there's a formulaic quality to the script by actors Milo Addica and Will Rokos.
The film opens as Georgia prison guard Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) goes about his daily
regimen preparing for his job as a death row prison guard. We see him rise, vomit, dress for work and
drive off. In a few short scenes, the audience is clued in that maybe Hank isn't as happy as he thinks. He's
a third generation guard, a widower saddled with Buck (Peter Boyle), his virulently racist, ailing father,
and his somewhat soft child Sonny (Heath Ledger) who is going through the motions of following in the
family tradition. As the film opens, Hank and Sonny are preparing for the execution of death row inmate
Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs). Lawrence too has an unhappy family. His wife Leticia (Halle Berry)
is struggling to survive, literally drowning her sorrows, while his son Tyrell (newcomer Coronji Calhoun)
buries hisunhappiness in overeating.
After the first half, in which Lawrence is executed and a couple of other characters meet their end,
the stage is set for the paths of Hank and Leticia to cross. When they do, their first encounter ends in a
three-minute-long sex scene that is more about need than it is about romance. Still, this unlikely duo forms
a bond and Monster's Ball finally achieves a cohesion and a poetic grace when that occurs. Until then,
the film is more episodic and elliptical, requiring an audience to patiently slog through some rather
overly melodramatic moments to its moving climax.
Despite the flaws in the script, Monster's Ball succeeds because of Forster's intelligent direction
which doesn't condescend to the characters or offer comment on their faults. The actors all do fine
work that keep the piece from devolving into a soap opera. Although briefly seen, Combs is surprisingly
good as the doomed inmate while Ledger nicely essays a portrait of a youth frustrated by his legacy.
The character of Buck could easily become a cliche but Peter Boyle manages to inject a small measure
of humanity into what is essentially a monster. In many ways, the role recalls Boyle'' breakout part of the
bigoted Joe Curran in 1970's Joe.
Billy Bob Thornton has perhaps the hardest role in the film. He must make the audience understand
how this man raised in such a racist household, one who has demonstrated his own brand of racism,
could fall in love with Leticia. That he achieves such a transformation in a subtle and layered performance
makes it all the more extraordinary.
Halle Berry started her career with a juicy turn as a junkie in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever but seldom
has she found parts that were as meaty. Typecast by her beauty, she often has been relegated to decorative
roles, but with Leticia, she has found one that allows her to expand and demonstrate her talents. As good
as Berry is, I still could not help but think what an actress like Angela Bassett (who reportedly turned down
the role) might have done with the part. Berry's work has something of a perfunctory tone to it and nowhere
is that more evident than in the film's last scenes. One feels that Hank has undergone a transformation
(thanks to Thornton's nuanced work), but Leticia remains something of a blank. Berry just doesn't have
the chops to make her character's adjustment palpable, thus robbing Monster's Ball of its emotional center.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, language and violence
Running time: 111 mins.
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.