Unlikely Lovers Challenge Racism
A grandfather, father, and son live together in an atmosphere of despair and racial prejudice in Monster's Ball, a disturbing movie set in the Deep South. Sadness engulfs the people in this provocative drama like a dense fog, leaving them with little sense of direction or purpose except trying to get by each day. When the film's unlikely lovers, played by Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry, finally discover a bit of happiness together, I breathed a sigh of relief --- but I still wondered how long it could last.
Like In the Bedroom, stellar performances enrich Monster’s Ball and give it a special significance. Thornton (Bandits) is Hank Grotowski, a Georgia corrections officer on the verge of tremendous life changes. Caught in between his bigoted father (Peter Boyle from TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond) and soft-hearted son (Heath Ledger from A Knight’s Tale), Hank makes a deadly mistake that not only leads to tragedy but also threatens his sanity as well as his ingrained hatred of African Americans. Whenever Thornton appeared on screen, I couldn’t stop looking at his sorrowful eyes. They are the key to Hank’s character and reveal emotional depths too often belied by his ultra-sparse dialogue.
Berry (Swordfish) foregoes any semblance of glamour in the role of Letitia Musgrove, a woman whose husband (Sean Combs --- aka “Puff Daddy”) is executed after all appeals fail. As the surviving parent of a son with problems of his own, Berry, who deserves her Best Actress Oscar for this role, delivers a startling portrayal of an imperfect human being unable to overcome the obstacles facing her. Job loss, eviction from her home, and lack of financial support are among the least of Letitia’s difficulties. When Hank tells her, “I want to take care of you,” and she responds, “I really need taking care of,” I believed every word of it.
While events bringing Hank and Letitia together, including Letitia’s lack of knowledge about Hank’s role in her husband’s execution, seem highly improbable, incredible acting by Thornton and Berry earned my forgiveness for any plot manipulation. I’m troubled, however, by the film’s explicit sex scenes and harrowing execution sequence. Why isn’t Monster’s Ball rated NC-17? Even squeamish adults should think twice before seeing it. Other viewers may also be shocked by use of the “n” word.
Also, director Marc Forster’s (Everything Put Together) leisurely pacing annoyed me sometimes, especially in the slow-moving prison sequences. But I appreciated the film’s straightforward cinematography by Roberto Schaefer (Best in Show) that endowed the movie with a realistic sense of place. No dreamy travelogue shots here!
I believe the most impressive thing about Monster’s Ball (which refers to a condemned man’s last night before his execution) is the message it delivers about how a person can change for the better despite living for many years as a pathetic excuse for a human being. Thanks to Thornton and new screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos, not since Scrooge in A Christmas Carol or Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets has a fictional character demonstrated this truth more dramatically for me than Hank Grotowski.
(Released by Lions Gate Films and rated “R” for strong sexual content, language and violence.)