Maturely directed by Marc Forster (2001's "Everything Put Together"), "Monster's Ball" is a stark drama filled with so much rage and despair it ultimately threatens to suffocate the hopefulness that truthfully hangs around the edges of the story. Aided by two performances that rank with the year's very best, and a screenplay that wisely oversteps melodrama for sharp realism, it is nearly impossible to take your eyes off the screen for a second.
One of the richest pleasures the film offers is its frequently unforeseen developments that makes much of what happens all the more captivating. To lightly move around the proceedings without giving anything vital away, Billy Bob Thornton stars as Corrections Officer Hank Grotowski, an overbearingly stern father living in the deep south who has pushed his child, Sonny (Heath Ledger), into the same profession as he. Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry) is a down-on-her-luck single mother to an obese 10-year-old son (Coronji Calhoun) who is struggling to come to terms with the recent execution of her convicted late husband (Sean Combs). Through a tragic, life-altering occurrence in both of their lives, Hank and Leticia find the greatest solace in meeting each other, as they are two notably different people who suddenly have a lot in common.
A thoughtful rumination on how hatred and bigotry have the power to be passed down in a family, "Monster's Ball" is a shattering motion picture that packs a wallop. Director Marc Forster masterfully uses sparse, but important, dialogue exchanges, and moments of unflinching sexuality and violence to tell a story of culminating optimism and redemption. Just as in the real world, unpredictable, unfair snags move into the lives of the characters throughout, and it is a testament to natural human strength that helps them to feel, hurt, and finally move forward.
Forster and screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos also deserve plaudits in their uncompromising portraits of Hank and Leticia, two flawed individuals whom we start off actively disliking, and then slowly warm up to as they make changes in their life that can only be for the better. By the ending, it comes as something of a shock to discover how much we have grown to care about and respect them.
Billy Bob Thornton (2001's "The Man Who Wasn't There
") and Halle Berry (2000's "X-Men
") are extraordinary in their roles. Thornton poignantly portrays Hank as, at first, a man held captive by the years of brainwashing his narrow-minded, racist father (Peter Boyle) has done to him and, later, as someone who recognizes his awful mistakes and sets out to make them as right as they can possibly be.
Berry's Leticia is just, if not more, fascinating, as a woman who has been hurt for too many years by her absent husband, and takes out her self-hatred on her overeating son. This is a remarkable achievement on Berry's part, and her highly charged, heartbreaking performance is worth noticing.
As Sonny, Hank's abusively treated son, Heath Ledger (2001's "A Knight's Tale
") cogently brings sadness and regret to a brief role that leaves a lasting impression. R&B musician Sean Combs (2001's "Made") breaks the usual singer-turned-actor curse with the emotionally understated supporting part of Lawrence Musgrove, Leticia's husband, who on the verge of death with his impending execution.
In the wrong hands, "Monster's Ball" could have easily been written, acted, and filmed in an obvious manner--predictable, maudlin, and needlessly conventional. In the right hands of Forster, however, it is an important movie that digs deeply, and lovingly, into the darkness and possible light of human nature.
©2001 by Dustin Putman