Some movies take a while to grab you. Sometimes it even takes repeated viewings. Then you’ve got movies which, from the very first shot, make you think this might be something special. “Monster’s Ball” is such a film. It opens with a moody, ominous extended shot of Billy Bob Thorton, lying in bed sleeping uneasily, in hushed green and yellow tones, with shadows passing over his face. This is almost like the opening to “Apocalypse Now”: it’s aesthetically interesting, but mostly it subtly takes you into that world and it sets the tone. Then we can get to know the specifics about Thornton’s character, Hank Grotowski. He’s a middle-aged Corrections Officer working on Death Row in a Georgia State prison, where his now ill father (Peter Boyle) worked before, and where his son (Heath Ledger) has started recently.
Director Marc Forster, working from a screenplay by Milo Addica and Will Rokos, carefully establishes his Deep South setting. I’ve never been to that part of America (though I’ve passed through it in a bus to Miami), so I don’t know if it’s more like the sunny “y’all come back, now” Georgia of Britney Spears’ “Crossroads” or as we see it here, all sweat, undershirts, sleazy diners and bars, with racial tensions boiling. In any case, there’s no question which of those two visions is the most dramatically involving! There’s none of the obnoxious girlie sap of Brit’s awful flick in “Monster’s Ball”, a film which focuses on the worst aspects of humanity, but not without finding hope. Hence, for all of Hank’s close-minded bigotry, racism and brutality, directly passed to him by his intolerant father, we see that his son is able to let that bitter heritage go and treat black people just like any other. This doesn’t sit well with his old man at all, but after a particularly heated confrontation, Hank will be forced to rethink his behaviour…
In a bit of kinda unnecessary serendipity, the woman through whom Hank changes is Leticia (Halle Berry), the widow of a cop killer (Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs, who between “Made” and this proves to be much more of an actor than he ever was as a rapper) that Hank’s team executed. These early scenes are effective, depicting death penalty as hard as “The Green Mile”, but with less light flourishes. Even before they meet, Leticia becomes as central a character as Hank. We see her, barely hanging on as her world is falling apart, with her husband in jail, her fat son (Coronji Calhoun) finding comfort in candy bars, her job as a waitress unable to support them… It’s a horrible life, or so it seems, and the nameless dread which inhabits the action on screen transmits all too well to the audience, and it only gets more wrenching as the film unflinchingly watches as tragedy deepens.
I won’t go into spoilers, but the goings really get tough, and both the Corrections Officer and the waitress find themselves lonely, tired and empty, desperately in need of somebody to hold on to. It’s a bit of a leap for them to find comfort in each other, but I accepted it, and the next step seemed inevitable. After all the pain and the hurt, the film culminates with the most intensely cathartic fuck (no other word can do it justice) I’ve seen in movies. Part of me wishes the film had ended then, as it peaked. The hour that follows is good enough, the acting and direction still deliver, but the relentlessly growing tensions of the first half are now deflating. We’re left with rather conventional and predictable plot mechanics, and some simplistic turns, but the film ends on a surprisingly satisfying note.
Overall, “Monster’s Ball” remains a wonderfully crafted film, with a great score and always interesting shot composition, with the camera watching from behind windows, bars, furniture, in a matter of fact if not voyeuristic way. Most notably, Forster gets amazing acting from his cast. Billy Bob
Thornton has impressed me before, from “Sling Blade” through “A Simple Plan”, but in these past few months he’s been on an unbelievable roll, proving as great as an amusingly neurotic bank robber in “Bandits” and as an intriguingly detached barber in the Coen bros’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, and now in “Monster’s Ball” he might be at his best as a truly flawed man who learns to allow himself to change his views. Halle Berry is the real surprise here, though. Who knew this glamorous beauty could be so convincing as a vulnerable, unkempt , emotionally wounded woman? This is a brave, very affecting performance, and so is “Monster’s Ball”. While I feel it falls short from brilliance in its underwhelming last act, it remains a film which is sure to get to you.