Monsters Ball (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Monster's Ball is a powerful and poignant motion picture not about racism and redemption, as one might initially suppose, but about one of the most urgent and universal of human needs - that of finding solace for pain and loneliness. Though it has some of the trappings of an interracial romance, Monster's Ball is not that, either. The sex in this movie is not a precursor to love; it is a means by which two people can find temporary refuge from their otherwise bleak existences. An orgasm is an effective way to wipe away everything else, if only for a few moments.

Coincidence forms the fulcrum of Monster's Ball's storyline. In some movies, this coincidence would become a major source of plot complications, but the screenplay, by Milo Addica and Will Rokos, is smart enough to confound our expectations. Thus, though we may be expecting a big, emotional confrontation, it never comes. The principle male character is Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), a corrections officer who is greatly respected at work, but whose home life is a disaster. It's hard to say whether he has a worse relationship with his surly, racist father (Peter Boyle) or his soft-hearted son (Heath Ledger). Hank is charged with supervising the execution of death-row inmate Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs), a cop killer who has exhausted 11 years' worth of appeals. Lawrence has a son, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun), who idolizes him, and a wife, Leticia (Halle Berry), who can't stand him. Following the execution, both Hank and Leticia suffer shocking, unexpected tragedies, and, in the wake of one of these, they are thrown together. And, because they happen to be there, they turn to each other.

These characters are far more real than the average motion picture constructs. Most movies are so concerned with plot and visual style that they lose sight of the men and women inhabiting the screenplay. Not so here. Monster's Ball is all about these two people and the forces that push them into a relationship that, under any other circumstances, would not occur. But there are no easy answers here. Leticia and Hank do not profess (or experience) undying love for one another, nor do they ride happily off into the sunset. In fact, the movie ends on a beautiful note of ambiguity, and, perhaps of hope.

A mixture of pain, grief, and guilt - one of the most bitter cocktails the human experience offers - can cause people to do unexpected things in the quest for surcease. When trapped in the midst of raging rapids, the drowning victim will grasp at any lifeline, no matter how tenuous it is. The characters in Monster's Ball are looking for release. "Make me feel good!" cries Leticia. It's a momentary thing. Hank and Leticia never truly feel good, but they do feel better. In each other, they discover something that, in its own way, is more potent than mere love: comfort. When they are together, they don't hurt as much or as often.

This is a brave movie requiring courageous performances. With this role, Halle Berry sheds years of lightweight baggage. Her performance is an odds-on favorite to garner a deserved Oscar nomination. Billy Bob Thornton matches her intensity pace-for-pace. These two radiate neediness and anguish. We can see their inner torment mirrored in their eyes and faces. The hand of Job is upon them both. Much has been made of Berry's baring of her body for the camera, but what's even more impressive is the way she bares her soul. The chemistry between Berry and Thornton is strong, but it's not of the romantic variety. Instead, it's something more primal - something that movies rarely depict for fear of alienating audiences who want shallow screenplays with hollow characters. This isn't anyone's fantasy.

Hank is, in many ways, an ugly individual. He is a racist who has inherited his feelings from his father. As the film wears on, his tolerance for blacks grows. This is not the result of some sudden enlightenment, but because the passion necessary to sustain prejudice has drained out of him. Hank also perhaps experiences a moment of clarity when he looks at himself and sees the man he most despises - his father. That doesn't prompt his change, but it certainly contributes to it. Leticia is no angel, either. She abuses her son, both verbally and physically, because he eats too much. She has trouble keeping her job and is on the verge of being evicted from her home.

There are two sex scenes between Hank and Leticia. The first, which is the more graphic of the two, is so raw and intense that it is more likely to disturb than to arouse. These individuals are using one another to assuage guilt and pain; it's an outpouring of need and grief. There's no kissing, just sweaty physical contact. By the time the second encounter occurs, Hank and Leticia have developed a bond. There are hints of tenderness and affection in their relationship, and it shows during a scene that comes as close to playful as anything in Monster's Ball. But the movie still has one more obstacle to throw in our path, and many unanswered questions to pose.

This is the second feature from director Marc Forster, whose debut, Everything Put Together, was never widely seen outside of the film festival circuit. Thus, Monster's Ball has become Forster's calling card, and it makes a bold statement. This is as anti-Hollywood a film as I have seen in recent months, one which takes conventional plot ideas and uses them not to season a melodrama, but to enrich fully three-dimensional characters and create a forceful motion picture. Hank and Leticia do not let go of you, even once the end credits have rolled.

Monsters Ball (United States, 2001)

Director: Marc Forster
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Sean Combs, Coronji Calhoun
Screenplay: Milo Addica & Will Rokos
Cinematography: Roberto Schaefer
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 2001-12-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1