Director: Marc Forster
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Sean Combs, Dante Beze, Coronji Calhoun
MPAA Rating: (for strong sexual content, language and violence)
Running Time: 1:51
Release Date: 12/26/01 (limited); 2/8/02 (wide)
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Review by Mark Dujsik
To use an understatement, racism is an incredibly touchy subject, and while a good deal of Monster’s Ball seems to tackle the issue, restricting the film to that area alone is doing it a great disservice. Monster’s Ball uses racism and misogyny as the impetus and magnifying glass for observing one man’s change and growth, but even that isn’t necessarily a complete description. With the inclusion of ideas about how much impact one’s upbringing has on his or her later life, the film is also about escape from the past. Even still, it’s about many different relationships—how and why they are formed—but it also examines role reversals within those relationships. The film is thematically complicated without ever forcing any of its ideas. It accomplishes this delicate web of theme and character by simply allowing its characters to coexist in the world of the film and to be truly affected by the situations in which they are placed, a relatively simple task that is rarely done in films today.
Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) is a prison guard in death row of a Georgia corrections facility. His sickly father Buck (Peter Boyle) lives with him and cannot care for himself. Buck is a hateful man, a racist and a misogynist, and Hank has evidently taken on his father’s misanthropic tendencies and views. Hank’s son Sonny (Heath Ledger) works with his father, but unlike his elders has a more compassionate opinion of others. Both of the older men disdainfully ignore his compassion as being a side effect of having "too much of his mother in him." Hank and Sonny are preparing for the execution of Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs). The inmate’s wife Leticia (Halle Berry) and son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun) visit him the day of his execution and leave to await his last phone call. Hank informs him that the warden has denied him a last call, and the execution goes on as planned with only one hitch: Sonny became sick on Lawrence’s last walk. It pushes Hank’s animosity toward his son to the surface. Leticia also begins lashing out at her overweight son and finds a new job at Hank’s favorite diner.
Through a series of events both emotional and situational, Hank and Leticia’s lives slowly intertwine. Beyond the most obvious connection of Leticia’s husband, Hank and Leticia eventually also share a common tragedy and similar upbringing. Both of them are abusive toward their children, which we can only assume comes from their own raising. There are also important contrasts in the way they live their lives. Hank begins the film caring only for himself and possessing more power over his life than he realizes, while Leticia primarily takes care of others but does not have as much control over her life as she think she has. As the film progresses and their lives become more and more complex, both of them come to a better understanding of their respective situations and being to make changes accordingly. When they finally come together and acknowledge a relationship, it is not one based on love but a growing desperation. Leticia inevitably needs someone to take care of her, and Hank needs someone to take of.
Screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos express these sometimes subtle, sometimes immense changes through minimal dialogue. It eliminates superfluous talk and gets straight to the core of the characters. It also allows the characters’ actions to speak louder than their words. Everything that happens signals at least a small change for either Hank or Leticia, and as in real life, such transitions are impossible to put into words. Hank begins to take command of his life by quitting his job and philosophically separating himself from his father. Leticia clings to all remnants of control over her life, but slowly but surely begins to cling to Hank. Their relationship is based on an intense need for each other to fulfill the increased compassion, in Hanks’ case, and the need for such compassion, in Leticia’s case. There is also a great void in both their lives caused by similar losses, and the two rely on each other to fill the emptiness.
Providing the film with an incredibly sturdy foundation is an ensemble of actors offering wrenchingly dark performances. Billy Bob Thornton gives an honest portrayal of a man prime for change. From the beginning, we’re unsure as to how much his father has influenced his outlook on life. He seems uneasy about his actions, but still making sure he makes his father happy. As Leticia, Halle Berry is heartfelt and earnest. She hasn’t done work like this before, and she proves herself to be a serious, dramatic actress. It’s a revelation of a performance. Heath Ledger is memorable as Sonny, also successfully traversing dismal emotional territory, and Sean Combs is surprisingly effective in his scenes. As Hank’s racist father, Peter Boyle is eerily low-key, exhibiting the contemptible and vulnerable side of a monster.
Monster’s Ball is an intense drama that trusts its characters and lets them move freely amongst themselves and react honestly to the situations in which life places them. Director Marc Forster has assembled a thoroughly engaging character study with rich details and a true sense of humanity. The film is complex because it permits its characters to be complex. It’s about specific people in a specific place with specific histories and specific fates.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.