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Monster's Ball

The plot of Monster's Ball packs a lot into its 111-minute running time. It features a hit-and-run accident, an electrocution, a suicide, a man who retires and then starts up his own business, a young woman who loses her
job and has to start over, an old man who's put in a nursing home, a young man who frequents prostitutes in a run-down motel, racism, sex, and lots of ice cream. In fact, a brief synopsis would sound more like a soap opera than a serious drama, and that would be a disservice to the film.

The real strength of Monster's Ball lies in its well-drawn characters and the actors who play them. Billy Bob Thornton (The Man Who Wasn't There) is Hank Grotowski, a Georgia man who works as a correctional officer. He's polite and treats the prisoners well, better in fact than he treats his own son, Sonny (Heath Ledger, A Knight's Tale). Sonny is also a correctional officer, but he doesn't have the stomach for the job; when he has to lead a prisoner to the electric chair, Sonny vomits and has to be removed.

In Hank's eyes, Sonny is weak, an unforgivable trait in a Grotowski. Hank isn't so "strong" himself, a point *his* father Buck brings up repeatedly. For Buck (Peter Boyle from "Everybody Loves Raymond"), a man rules his house and those around him with cruelty, a trait that has only been partially passed down to his son.

Instead of cruelty, Hank has routine. Every day, he wakes up early and heads to a local diner where he eats a bowl of chocolate ice cream with a plastic spoon. But that routine is upset one day when a new waitress named Leticia (Halle Berry, Swordfish) starts working. She's another person for Hank to ignore until one night he happens to pass her while he's driving in the rain. Her son Tyrell (Caronji Calhoun) has been hit by a car, and she's trying to get him to the hospital. Hank takes her, and a relationship is born.

The chemistry between Thornton and Berry is nicely awkward. The audience understands why these two might fall for each other, even while acknowledging the differences in their age and skin color. Some audience members might be put off by the two explicit sex scenes, but they serve the characters well even if they do go on too long.

The script by Milo Addica and Will Rokos tries to take on too much, and some of the plot threads get lost in the shuffle. But director Marc Foster is more interested in atmosphere and characters than linear narrative, an
emphasis that serves both his material and actors. Roberto Schaefer's cinematography contributes mightily as well. The opening credit sequence is a gorgeous use of a split screen, with Hank driving on one side and
sleeping on the other. It's an evocative pairing, made even more so by Schaefer's moody lighting. This motif is echoed in other scenes to interesting effect.

The best part of Monster's Ball, however, are the performances by Thornton and Berry. I'm not sure if Berry's performance is a stand-out because I didn't expect much or if it's actually Oscar-worthy, but it's certainly a leap forward for an actress known more for her looks than her chops. She handles the role of a single mother with subtlety and insight. Thornton, of course, has had a string of critically-acclaimed roles beginning with Sling Blade; and this one is just as strong. He continues to establish his range and power. The supporting cast doesn't have much to do, but they certainly don't detract. 

J. Robert Parks 1/29/2002

Monster’s Ball is a naturalistic drama directed by Marc Forster. By naturalistic, I mean the camera moves slowly, as though half-asleep, forcing us to move at the pace of everyday life through spaces that look as real as your own neighborhood. The actors aren’t noticeably "gussied up," there are no noticeable special effects, and there is as much said in silence as there is in dialogue. It’s a movie for people who like to think about their movies, instead of for the masses who just want to be spoon-fed.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Hank, a corrections officer carrying intense racial prejudice in one hand and a sidearm in the other. Hank’s aging father Buck (Peter Doyle) constantly reinforces the family’s race-hate, calling Sonny, Hank’s son, "weak" because he befriends their black neighbors. Halle Berry plays Leticia, the wife of a convicted killer, a mother trying to raise her son right and survive as a black single mother in the middle of the South’s racial tensions.  After the criminal is executed, Hank’s dispute with his son (Heath Ledger of The Patriot) intensifies. But as he watches Leticia grieve while she works at his favorite late-night diner, he comes to care for her, and love begins breaking apart his prejudice. 

Make no mistake: This is a story about people who are severely damaged and lost, behaving in reckless, dangerous ways as they nurse their particular needs for love, understanding, and intimacy. People are killed. Men lash out in racist hate. Father and sons call on and use prostitutes to find fleeting satisfaction. A mother beats her son. Lovers fall into hasty sex while under the influence of alcohol. It is not a pretty picture, and definitely not a film for younger viewers, or for the squeamish.

But the central theme of the story is this—hate, even hardened racism, can be overcome by love and compassion. Hank and Leticia are moving towards a mature relationship the way toddlers learn to walk—they’re making every variety of mistake, fumbling their way towards the basic lessons of love, gaining wisdom inch by inch. Their missteps are clearly portrayed as missteps. (Hank’s interaction with a prostitute is not glamorized, but shown as the joyless, empty, and contemptible exchange that it is. Thus, when he finds true love, the revelation is all the more meaningful.) The Bible itself tells us stories of men more evil than Hank who learned about love the hard way. Each mistake Hank makes teaches him something. 

The performances of Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry are excellent. Billy Bob Thornton again shows he can make a bad script seem good. Halle Berry pours herself, heart and soul, into the character, making this her most impressive performance yet. 

But Forster makes us too intimate with these characters. When two of them get drunk after a devastating day, they rush into sexual activity that changes the course of their lives and their story. These scenes are entirely necessary, but they’re filmed too explicitly. Forster lets them go beyond informative to become merely provocative. It’s a primary rule of art, Mr. Director—less is more. 

I also think Forster portrays Southern prejudice a bit too intensely. It may reflect the truth, but it isn't explored much. It's just loud, offensive, and in-your-face brutal. This seemed somewhat clichéd as well. Yes, there are still communities deeply divided by prejudice, but the portrayals here are played for shock value, to make contemporary audiences gasp and end up hating the bad guys. If I lived in the South, I’d find the relentlessness of these portrayals to exhibit a prejudice of their own. 

There are other problems with the movie—its flaws seem more evident upon reflection, after the film’s powerfully meditative mood music and leisurely camerawork are finished. Forster is a little too excited about his film’s symbolism, and he uses it heavy-handedly. During one scene we see jarringly incongruous pictures of someone trying to free a bird from a cage. Yeah yeah, we get the point: Leticia’s caged heart is being set free. Not only is that painfully cliché, but there is no bird or bird cage in the story, unless I missed something, and thus the audience is left trying to figure out "Whose bird is that?" If Leticia had kept a bird, that would have been just enough of suggested metaphor. Just because most audiences don’t like to think doesn’t mean a director should try to explain his own imagery in the middle of the movie. 

The movie’s leisurely pace gave me room to remember where I’d seen this story before. Monster’s Ball is The Crying Game, re-set in the American South, where bad men are prejudiced against blacks instead of homosexuals. The hero begins the movie participating in the execution of a man whose wife he will, racked with guilt, decide to befriend and support. As in Crying Game, these two very different people will fall in love, and of course, the hero’s connection to the execution will remain secret until the end. 

But we also have As Good as it Gets here, as Hank and Leticia get to know each other through quick, tense, prejudice-laced exchanges in a diner, while she pours his "black" coffee and serves his "chocolate" ice cream. Perhaps the unflatteringly graphic electric-chair scenes will give the film the added importance that worked for Dead Man Walking. This is a movie hard-wired for critical acclaim, so loaded with issues that it may have backfired among Oscar voters. While it won Roger Ebert’s "movie of the year" mention, it hasn’t become an "event" film for any reason other than Berry’s occasional state of undress.

But far be it from me to say the film is empty. Heavy-handed and derivative as it is, thanks to its two central performers, it strikes some resonant chords about forgiveness, compassion, and doing the right thing. 

Copyright © 2002 by Jeffrey Overstreet. Reproduction for non-commercial use is permitted, provided the material is not altered, and provided that the copyright notice is retained.
 
 

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Looking Closer web page and in The Crossing , a magazine for Christian artists.  He is also the editor of a weekly column at ChristianityToday.com called Film Forum, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association. You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com


 

 

 
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