Dismal and uncompromising, Mark Forster's "Monster's Ball" is a dark Southern dirge brought to life. Bleak from the outset, the drama taps into the hushed and shameful side of Southern culture without flinching. Old wounds are reopened, and long-festering prejudices brought to light. Even at its end, "Monster's Ball" holds out only the tiniest glimmer of hope.
But thanks to remarkable performances from Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry, the movie's apparent interracial love theme becomes so much more. Nor is it difficult to understand why this script has been circulating through the hands of agents, directors and studios for a half-dozen years. Its underlying theme of stubborn, generational brutality alone would be enough to make most of Hollywood think twice. At first glance, one would assume that "Monster's Ball" deals with racism and redemption and one would be right. Yet director Mark Forster and co-scriptors Milo Addica and Will Rokos have something deeper in mind. Instead, they craft "Monster's Ball" into an eloquent elegy on the universal search for solace.
Prolonged pain and loneliness can make even the most rational man lose touch. We watch as it does just that to Thornton's Hank Grotowski, a corrections officer who's respected on the job and disrespected at home. It's hard to say whether he has a worse relationship with his surly, blatantly racist father, Buck (Peter Boyle), or his softhearted son, Sonny (Heath Ledger). Assigned to the demoralizing task of supervising the execution of death-row inmates, Hank knows how to compartmentalize his feelings. He's learned to swallow his own pain and revulsion as well as the palpable fear of his charges. Just like his family's racism and brutality, working in the prison seems his family's birthright.
While the movie covers much of the same ground as "Dead Man Walking" and "The Green Mile," detailing the process and preparations required for executions, the more interesting things are occurring at home. That's especially true after Sonny takes drastic action and ultimately brings an end to the vicious sins-of-the-father cycle his family seemed destined to repeat for eternity.
A twist of fate or divine coincidence brings Hank into contact with Leticia Musgrove (Berry), the widow of a death-row convict (Sean Combs, yes! that Sean Combs) who spent his last hours on earth in the company of Hank and his son.
It's tricky to say more without revealing the quiet surprises Addica and Rokos so subtly put into play with their commendably spare, character-driven script. With the deliberate lack of dialogue and action, the actors are forced to rely upon their own pain and interior conflicts to effect the poignant punch such a story demands. As stated, Thornton and Berry more than deliver the goods.
As a man whose emotions are kept in a mental kind of solitary confinement, Thornton manages to convey a great deal while appearing to be doing very little. Berry, on the other hand, digs deeply, coming up with what might be the defining performance of her career. We never doubt for a second that life has done anything but deal her Leticia a series of devastating blows to the heart and head.
The collective soul-searching and soul-baring of Hank and Leticia give "Monster's Ball" a raw, almost numbing power. Even when that soul-searching extends to some very naked coupling, the effect is painfully introspective more than titillating.
Having pulled such fine, understated performances from Thornton and Berry, one can't help but wish Swiss filmmaker Forster had tried the same underplayed approach with his directing style. Despite the powerful central performances, Forster's directing smacks of a single-mindedness that seems woefully out of tune with his actors.
There's no denying that the subject matter of "Monster's Ball" is heavy, but Forster could have and should have allowed it room to breathe. In the end, the movie's and Forster's underlying bleakness makes watching "Monster's Ball" something of an endurance test instead of a thought-provoking, affecting voyage of
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