Maturely directed by Marc Forster (2001's "Everything Put Together"),
"Monster's Ball" is a stark drama filled with so much rage and despair
it ultimately threatens to suffocate the hopefulness that truthfully
hangs around the edges of the story. Aided by two performances that
rank with the year's very best, and a screenplay that wisely oversteps
melodrama for sharp realism, it is nearly impossible to take your
eyes off the screen for a second.
One of the richest pleasures the film offers is its frequently unforeseen
developments that makes much of what happens all the more captivating.
To lightly move around the proceedings without giving anything vital
away, Billy Bob Thornton stars as Corrections Officer Hank Grotowski,
an overbearingly stern father living in the deep south who has pushed
his child, Sonny (Heath Ledger), into the same profession as he. Leticia
Musgrove (Halle Berry) is a down-on-her-luck single mother to an obese
10-year-old son (Coronji Calhoun) who is struggling to come to terms
with the recent execution of her convicted late husband (Sean Combs).
Through a tragic, life-altering occurrence in both of their lives,
Hank and Leticia find the greatest solace in meeting each other, as
they are two notably different people who suddenly have a lot in common.
A thoughtful rumination on how hatred and bigotry have the power to
be passed down in a family, "Monster's Ball" is a shattering motion
picture that packs a wallop. Director Marc Forster masterfully uses
sparse, but important, dialogue exchanges, and moments of unflinching
sexuality and violence to tell a story of culminating optimism and
redemption. Just as in the real world, unpredictable, unfair snags
move into the lives of the characters throughout, and it is a testament
to natural human strength that helps them to feel, hurt, and finally move forward.
Forster and screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos also deserve
plaudits in their uncompromising portraits of Hank and Leticia, two
flawed individuals whom we start off actively disliking, and then
slowly warm up to as they make changes in their life that can only
be for the better. By the ending, it comes as something of a shock
to discover how much we have grown to care about and respect them.
Billy Bob Thornton (2001's "The Man Who Wasn't There") and Halle Berry
(2000's "X-Men") are extraordinary in their roles. Thornton poignantly
portrays Hank as, at first, a man held captive by the years of brainwashing
his narrow-minded, racist father (Peter Boyle) has done to him and,
later, as someone who recognizes his awful mistakes and sets out to
make them as right as they can possibly be.
Berry's Leticia is just, if not more, fascinating, as a woman who
has been hurt for too many years by her absent husband, and takes
out her self-hatred on her overeating son. This is a remarkable achievement
on Berry's part, and her highly charged, heartbreaking performance is worth noticing.
As Sonny, Hank's abusively treated son, Heath Ledger (2001's "A Knight's
Tale") cogently brings sadness and regret to a brief role that leaves
a lasting impression. R&B musician Sean Combs (2001's "Made") breaks
the usual singer-turned-actor curse with the emotionally understated
supporting part of Lawrence Musgrove, Leticia's husband, who on the
verge of death with his impending execution.
In the wrong hands, "Monster's Ball" could have easily been written,
acted, and filmed in an obvious manner--predictable, maudlin, and
needlessly conventional. In the right hands of Forster, however, it
is an important movie that digs deeply, and lovingly, into the darkness
and possible light of human nature.
Copyright © 2001 Dustin Putman