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MONSTER’S BALL Review - Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry Marc Forster

MONSTER’S BALL (2001)

Director: Marc Forster

Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Heath Ledger, Peter Boyle, Sean Combs, Mos Def, Coronji Calhoun

Screenplay: Milo Addica and Will Rokos

Halle Berry, Billy Bob Thornton in Monster’s Ball
Halle Berry, Billy Bob Thornton, Monster’s Ball

Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball by Marc Forster

In Monster’s Ball — the title refers to the macabre partying held the night before the execution of a death-row inmate — first-time screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos join forces with third-time feature-film director Marc Forster to create a motion picture of memorable moments.

Those range from the film’s dream-like introduction to an uncomfortable and surprisingly explicit sex scene. (I describe the lengthy sex scene as "explicit" because of its rawness, especially considering it’s an American production; the sex, however, is simulated.) Other memorable sequences include the suicide of a young man in front of his stunned father, a graphic electric chair execution, and the sight of a bereaved widow watching her son die in a hospital room. Alas, those powerful moments fail to add up to a powerful whole.

Set in the early 1990s, Monster’s Ball chronicles the inner awakening of widower Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), a tough prison guard living in the outskirts of a small Georgia town with his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), and his ailing, racist father, Buck (Peter Boyle), who has succeeded in passing on his prejudices to Hank.

At least partly for that reason, Hank and Sonny don’t get along, as Hank perceives his son’s mild-mannered behavior as a form of weakness. During a particularly nasty argument, Sonny kills himself in front of his father. (Both Sonny’s mother and grandmother had also committed suicide.) After that tragedy, Hank leaves his job and opens a gas station.

Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball

In another story thread, Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) is finally executed after waiting 11 years in death row for some unspecified crime. Musgrove’s widow, Leticia (Halle Berry), is left with a job as a waitress at a cheap diner and a food-addicted, 13-year-old son (Coronji Calhoun). When the boy gets run over by a car, Leticia is helped by Hank, who happened to be driving by. Slowly, the two disparate characters develop an unlikely but passionate bond.

Neither one knows at first that they share something other than that they have both lost their spouses and their children: As the man in charge of the executions on death row, Hank was one of the guards who set up the electric chair for Lawrence Musgrove.

Heath Ledger, Sean Combs in Monster’s BallThe film’s premise is intriguing; if only Addica and Rokos had done a more thorough job at patching up the screenplay’s many inconsistencies. For instance, we’re never told exactly why Hank feels such brutal animosity toward his son. After all, differences in temperament can justify their dysfunctional relationship only up to a certain point.

We’re also left in the dark as to the crime committed by Lawrence Musgrove, who’s portrayed as a taciturn man with a talent for drawing. Would some of us have been as horrified by his graphic electric chair execution had we learned that, say, before developing his artistic skills while behind bars Musgrove had been a cold-blooded axe murderer? The filmmakers opted not to take any chances.

Finally, the relationship between Hank and Halle Berry’s Leticia Musgrove (a role reportedly turned down by Angela Bassett and Vanessa L. Williams) is ultimately unsatisfying. The secret that Hank keeps from her is something that Leticia either should have known (she visited her husband more than once) or, in the small Georgia town where they live, would have found out sooner rather than later. The fact that she doesn’t become aware of the truth until the very end feels like a script contrivance.

In other respects, Monster’s Ball is also a cinematic case of hit and miss. German-born director Marc Forster manages to create a realistic Southern setting, and his minimalist touch greatly enhances the mood of the film — with the aid of cinematographer Roberto Schaefer’s soft colors and Asche & Spencer’s haunting music. Forster also elicits highly effective performances from both Heath Ledger and Peter Boyle; however, he is less successful in his handling of the two leads.

Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball

Billy Bob Thornton tries hard to make his former death-row guard seem both tough and sympathetic, but not once did I forget that I was watching an actor playing a role. Halle Berry has some excellent, highly charged moments — as when she witnesses her son’s death — but her drunk scene is a mess and her more subdued moments seem lifeless instead of introspective. In truth, nothing she does in Monster’s Ball matches the emotional impact of her acceptance speech at the 2002 Academy Awards ceremony.

Now, many will remember the DVD version of Monster’s Ball not for the storyline, the death by electrocution, or the performances — but for the sex scenes (which had to be toned down for theaters so as to avoid a NC-17 rating). A highly artificial intercourse sequence involving Heath Ledger’s Sonny and a prostitute is a mere warm-up to the Berry-Thornton free-for-all that takes place halfway during the movie.

Berry, in particular, must be commended for her bravery. Her desperate "Make me feel good" bit must have been extremely difficult to do on camera and it is indeed unforgettable, if not quite for the right reasons. What should have been pathetic and tragic — Leticia needs physical and emotional consolation because she has just lost both her husband and her son — comes across as borderline comical. (See Maggie Smith in California Suite for on-screen sexual desperation that is haunting, not bizarre.)

As for the sex acts, they’re neither erotic nor dramatic, but they sure are long. Indeed, there is something dead wrong when you’re watching two performers going for it with all their might, and you start wondering, "When the hell will the cunnilingus end so the story can continue?"

Note: A version of this Monster’s Ball review was initially posted in October 2004.

Academy Award Win

Best Actress: Halle Berry

Academy Award Nomination

Best Original Screenplay: Milo Addica and Will Rokos

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19 Comments to MONSTER’S BALL Review - Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry Marc Forster

  1. Bea K.

    Ken and Kelli Sumpter,
    I totally agree with you as the extended version not only shows Billy Bob’s testicles on full display bobbing up and down, but his erect penis right at what seems like the entrance to Halle’s vagina moving upwards, with NO covering expect perhaps for Halle’s vagina. If there was a special kind of ‘skin covering’ then I didn’t see it and someone even zoomed in at a certain point in time, if you look close enough you’ll see it. Good acting or not, I believe the time is coming where at least some of these actors/actresses will be asked to do at least one or two full on sex scenes, and I believe it’s already happening (I saw a well-known actress on one of the late night t.v. shows saying that a well-known director has already stated that he will be doing this going forward). If it was a fake scene then I’d love to know why these scenes in particular were included, for realism? Well, if that’s true it most certainly looked ‘real’ to me. If you can fake a man’s private parts the way that scene was done, then you’re really good.

  2. sapristina

    Halle Berry was very brave to do that sex scene in Monster’s Ball and she deserves our respect.

  3. Ken

    The sex was real check out the uncut version and you will see as both of them are on the floor. Halle is on top of Billy Bob. You will see as she’s moving up and down you see his balls, now if this scene was not real then why is his balls exposed? think about it people. Doesn’t matter how much people deny something look at the uncut film and see for yourself.

  4. how to eat

    I just loved the cunnilingus part! I mean, I love all movies with scenes of cunnilingus and oral sex in general…. and Halle is gorgeus!! She is the most beautiful women in the Hollywood, and I like her hot scenes! :D

  5. the boss

    all i care is that halle berry did a great job being fucked hard…………….
    and people like me can enjoy that scene and masturbate every fucking day without getting bored…………..

  6. bill thorntontontonton

    On a more academic and mature note:

    I’ve definitely wacked it to this scene.

  7. Andre

    Very interesting points.
    Thanks for writing, Cerise.

  8. Cerise

    Having just watched Monsters Ball for the first time, I don’t think Hank really felt true hatred towards Sonny. Clearly, Hank was under the thumb of his overbearing, true racist father. His son’s perceived ‘weakness” made Hank look bad in his fathers’ eyes. It was as much about Hank getting his dad’s approval as it was about Sonny getting Hank’s. I also think that if Hank had said he loved his son, Sonny wouldn’t have killed himself. Maybe it was the fact that Hank telling Sonny that he hated him when he didn’t really that was the catalyst for the changes in Hank.

  9. Andre,

    As for the ice cream/spoon symbolism (and I believe there’s other such pieces of symbolism in the movie), I’ll let you see for yourself and see what you think. But the fact that you don’t remember makes me think it’s much subtler than I gave it credit for. Maybe I shouldn’t have, given the fact that I didn’t catch it the first time I saw it.

    SPOILERS AHEAD - BEWARE

    I would argue that the extended sex scene is of the utmost importance. Let me explain. The two characters we have (Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton’s) are on the surface diametrically opposed. This is true not simply because of their race, but it is true for other reasons as well (including but not limited to their perceived socio-economic status; Billy Bob lives in a house that he will inherit, has no trouble with money, has a steady job, lives in a sense above that of Berry; Berry, on the other hand, lives a life of struggling day by day to get by, getting evicted from her house, etc.).

    The immediate trouble the viewer finds him or herself in, of course, is that both of these characters come to a place in their lives of a complete and utter groundlessness. Emotionally and psychologically we find them in a position of clear unity. Both of them have lost a child. Neither are directly responsible - yet the key is that they both feel responsible, and in a way, a very strong way, both are responsible, if indirectly, for the deaths of their children. Although neither consciously knows the extent to which they have come to this unity, they find themselves meeting at a crossroad from two different places.

    The sex for them is not simply physical, but also emotional (this is clear regardless of what one thinks of the scene itself). Here we find two characters who are so guarded to the world, letting themselves go WITH EACH OTHER, the LAST thing one would expect given their prior circumstances. They put themselves in the most extreme position of vulnerability imaginable. A short scene may accomplish the most basic act of having them have sex, but I feel like it loses much of its emotional power, which is not simply to shock audiences (and that is of course part of it), but to force the audience to surrender to and consider what’s happening on screen. It’s not just sex; it’s a connection that goes deeper than that. In the moment perhaps it may come off a little long, but in retrospect it works beautifully. It is not until the very final scene, the very last shot of them together, sitting and eating ice cream together, we realize the transformation they’ve been through. I believe the power of that scene is only THEN fully realized. And again, regard the ice cream/spoons…

    I really hope you watch it again soon. I watched it a second time on a whim, and I couldn’t be more grateful that I did. I was truly blown away by its power, honesty and heartbreakingly poetic narrative.

  10. Andre

    After reading your comment, I felt like I should check out “Monster’s Ball” a second time. It’s been a while. If I weren’t so behind in my movie watching, I’d do it soon — but MB will have to wait a little while…

    Since you’ve read my review, you’re aware we see things differently when it comes to Halle Berry’s performance in the sex scene. I do agree with you, however, about the dramatic importance of that long sequence even though I didn’t find it in and of itself dramatic — and, as mentioned in the review, I wish it had been much shorter.

    “Monster’s Ball” clearly had a more mature approach to interethnic relations than most other movies, as it presents both white/(part-)black leads as complex characters while subtly weaving in socioeconomic issues as well. In other words, it’s much more than a simplistic story about racist bigot/racism victim. My chief problems with the screenplay were the — in my view — plot contrivances; things I didn’t find believable but that were in the screenplay so the story would go where the screenwriters wanted it to go even if you — or rather, I — needed to either suspend disbelief or refrain from asking uncomfortable questions, e.g., What did Leticia’s husband do that the State decided to fry him on an electric chair? (I’m no death penalty advocate; but I believe that watching a person get electrocuted while knowing the crime s/he committed would, for better or for worse, have led to a radically different interpretation of that graphic execution scene.)

    Now, I can’t remember if I got the ice cream/spoon symbolism. And if I did, what I thought of it. One more reason for me to check out MB one more time.
    As always, thanks for writing.

  11. I’ve seen this film twice, and in all honesty, it grew in power the second time I saw it. I don’t agree that Halle Berry’s desperation for love and comfort comes off as comical. Indeed, I felt it came off as exactly as both actors intended it: honest and tragic. Not simply for the depiction itself, but also in its consequences. It changes both characters in a more profound way that I think even of them at first realize. I don’t know that by the end of the film they’ve even realized it.

    I think the movie is a very easy one to attack because of its openness with discussing race. The story and characters of the film could easily have been caricatures, but don’t come across that way at all. They feel like real people who are not only products of their environments, but also trapped by the mindsets they’ve created for themselves.

    I also find the contrasting black/white symbolism (the ice cream, the spoon) to be beautiful as it’s portrayed. With a less skilled directorial hand it could easily have come off as contrived, but it works so well as a way of externalizing the internal struggles Billy Bob Thornton’s character has around race.

    Few films I’ve seen have looked at race with such a stark eye. I really commend Marc Forster for having done so here. And I praise the film’s actors as well, for tackling material that is not only difficult, but almost impossible for some, to deal with.

    My overall point is that the film walks a tightrope the entire time. Race relations in the U.S. are such a volatile issue. Many films are attacked for racism for simply portraying the issue. Monster’s Ball is one of the few films that walks that tightrope and succeeds, partially because it doesn’t simplify the issue as other movies have (the famous example of Crash comes to mind), and it accurately understands how layered and multi-faceted it really is.

  12. Dave

    As a footnote, if you’d like to read a review that nails this movie on the head–especially the near insignificance of the racial angle–be sure to read Roger Ebert’s *written* review. He may give the film a bit too much credit, but for the most part, he’s on the money:

    http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20020201/REVIEWS/202010304/1023

  13. Dave

    @Kelli Sumpter (and Hesaid)

    You couldn’t be further off the mark. Both actors have repeatedly said the sex wasn’t real–to the point where they find the argument silly. The fact that your interpretation of this film–and Ms. Berry’s award–hinges on a debunked rumor regarding the sexual activities of the leads is both ridiculous and comical.

    And hesaid, you mentioned Kelli “isn’t alone” in her thinking. I hope that conjecture is incorrect, because if it isn’t, we’ll soon be living in a world filled with spoon-fed, politically correct dreck and missing out on risk-taking cinema like Monster’s Ball.

    It’s sad that people can’t see past the surface story of an interracial affair, and see the subtext at play here: the bond these two lost souls feel and disharmony in their own wretched existences is what brings them together via a not-too-random moment of fate. By the end, Leticia realizes the truth, but perhaps feels it doesn’t matter–perhaps this chance meeting was divined and meant to happen. Thornton obviously knows this truth would be revealed eventually–he makes the room and the drawing accessible and wants them to be found. One might even assume that he knows she’s seen them when he returns with the ice cream.

    This film is about so much more than race, and while it is flawed, it cannot be simply boiled down to an examination of interracial love: That’s only one small part. In many ways, if both leads were of the same race, the story might have been just as impactful due to the “secret” bond these two share that isn’t revealed until the end. To define this film by within the boundaries of *just* the racism angle is unfair to the filmmaker and the actors.

  14. will

    this version I’ve just seen seems totally different from the version i remembered first seeing; the sex scene was not long and as explicit and at the end of the movie Letisha was crying when hank was feeding her ice cream on the porch.

  15. Malik

    What are you saying, that Halle Berry isn’t special? Let me know, i try not to waste my time. Halle Berry, please, say it isn’t so.

  16. Hesaid

    Daag, kelli sumpter, you hit it on the nose. Absolutely. The authors after cant be conscious of the subtle undertones that movies imply, they just get the overtones and see it for entertainment.
    Black man (typically criminal), executed by a racist leaving a pitiful, helpless black woman, to be rescued by the racist but first they gotta kill the little fat useless boy.
    And at 2 minutes 47 in to the most degrading scene in Hollywood history you actually see his balls coming out of her.

    Dood, dood, call me old fashioned but if you wanna help tell that story Max Love thas on you pardner, but me eerr i’ll pass on that. I is a free negro, but then you need more than an average education a teeny weeny bit of individuality and a passion for truth to see what others cant. That movie was more of a ritual to me. You feel that kelli? It was weird and out of sync, the point dominated the script. A dead black man, a dead black boy and a helpless black women leaning on a racist white man, oh and of course she fetches him a hat like a good obedient slave. That hat was probably the last thing my Lynched grandfather saw before he shut his eyes for the last time. How symbolic.
    Anywayz Well said well spotted, your not alone kelli.

  17. Malik

    When i say goodbye, i hope it is never for long. Because, Halle Berry, i never want to forget you. I want more, still, i must care for myself. Your enchanting and if i do forget you, it won’t be until the end of time. See, so, you help me. Through any rugged i know i will have you. I love you.

  18. Max Love

    Halle is an amazing actress and deserved an award.
    To say this is damaging to black women is crazy. If anything it could be viewed as displaying how gorgeous sisters are. Infact rather than set women of color back it probably opens doors for more awards. Embrace sex and love scenes as the beautiful thing it is. I didn’t see anything wrong with that scene. It was very tame actually.
    How one views it is normally a reflection of how liberal minded one is and how one feels about themselves.

  19. kelli sumpter

    The uncut sex scene shows that the two were not acting but having actual sex. It is therefor sad that the first oscar given to a black woman was given for Halle Berry being willing - the only willing woman in Hollywood- to actually have sex on film. She lost her husband over it but more than that - she did more to set back black actresses than slavery did for her race.







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