- Monster’s Ball (movie 2001) review: Director Marc Forster and screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos’ socio-psychological drama has a number of effective moments. Unfortunately, these don’t amount to an equally effective whole.
- Monster’s Ball earned Halle Berry the Best Actress Academy Award. It was also shortlisted in the Best Original Screenplay category.
Monster’s Ball (movie 2001) review: Despite its undeniable qualities, Marc Forster’s interethnic socio-psychological drama falls short of its soul-stirring goals
In Monster’s Ball – the title refers to the macabre celebration held the night before the execution of a death-row inmate – first-time screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos joined forces with third-time feature film director Marc Forster to create a motion picture of, however sporadic, memorable moments.
These range from the film’s dream-like introduction to a lengthy and surprisingly “explicit” sex scene. (“Explicit” for an American production; the sex is simulated.) Other such sequences include a graphic electric chair execution, a young man committing suicide in front of his stunned father, and a bereaved widow watching her son die in a hospital room.
Alas, these memorable moments fail to add up to an equally memorable 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 – like his mother and grandmother before him – kills himself. After that tragedy, Hank leaves his job and opens a gas station.
In another story thread, Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) is finally executed after waiting 11 years on 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 13-year-old food-addicted 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 that they share something other than the loss of their spouses and sons: As the man in charge of the executions on death row, Hank was one of the guards who set up the electric chair for Letitia’s husband.
Monster’s Ball has an undeniably intriguing premise; if only Addica and Rokos had done a more thorough job patching up the gaps and inconsistencies in their screenplay.
For instance, we’re never told exactly why Hank feels such brutal animosity toward Sonny. After all, differences in temperament can justify their dysfunctional relationship only up to a 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.
Another key narrative problem is that the relationship between the racist Hank and the ethnically mixed – but in the U.S. officially “black” – Leticia Musgrove is ultimately unsatisfying.
One example when suspension of disbelief is required: The secret that Hank keeps from Leticia is something that she 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 case of cinematic hit and miss.
German-born director Marc Forster manages to create a realistic Southern U.S. setting, while his minimalist touch – with the aid of cinematographer Roberto Schaefer’s soft colors and Asche & Spencer’s haunting music – greatly enhances the mood of the film. In addition, Forster elicits compelling performances from supporting players Heath Ledger and Peter Boyle.
On the downside, he is far less successful in his handling of the two leads.
Two-time Oscar nominee Billy Bob Thornton (as Best Actor for Sling Blade, 1996; as Best Supporting Actor for A Simple Plan, 1998) tries hard to make his former death-row guard seem both tough and affable, but not once does he come across as anything but an actor at work.
Halle Berry (in a role reportedly turned down by Angela Bassett and Vanessa Williams) has several poignant moments – e.g., the sequence when she witnesses her son’s death – but her drunk scene is a mess and her more subdued bits feel lifeless instead of introspective. In truth, nothing Berry does in Monster’s Ball matches the emotional intensity of her Best Actress acceptance speech at the 2002 Academy Awards ceremony.
Endless sex scene
Now, many will remember the DVD version of Monster’s Ball not for the storyline, the death by electrocution, the interethnic romance, or the performances – but for the sex scenes (which had to be toned down for American theaters to avoid an NC-17 rating).
An artificial intercourse sequence featuring Heath Ledger’s Sonny and a prostitute is a mere warm-up to the Halle Berry-Billy Bob Thornton free-for-all that takes place halfway through the movie. Berry, in particular, must be commended for her bravery. Her desperate “Make me feel good” outburst must have been extremely difficult to do on camera and it is indeed unforgettable, even 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. Suggestion: Check out Maggie Smith in Herbert Ross’ California Suite for on-screen sexual desperation that is positively unsettling.
As for the Monster’s Ball sex segment itself, it’s neither erotic nor dramatic, but it sure is long. 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 the cunnilingus will end so the story can continue.
Monster’s Ball (movie 2001) cast & crew
Director: Marc Forster.
Screenplay: Milo Addica & Will Rokos.
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton. Halle Berry. Heath Ledger. Peter Boyle. Sean Combs. Mos Def. John McConnell.
“Monster’s Ball (Movie 2001)” endnotes
Future Best Director Academy Award nominee Lee Daniels (Precious, 2009) produced Monster’s Ball.
Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry Monster’s Ball movie images: Lionsgate Films.
“Monster’s Ball (Movie 2001): Memorable Parts, Inadequate Whole” last updated in April 2023.
I am so glad to hear anyone, especially a critic be honest about Hallie Berry and the Movie, Monster’s Ball. So few African Americans win Oscar’s till I think people hesitate to be critical of those few that actually do win, BUT in this case it’s more than warranted. Her line: “I want you to make me feel good” may be the worst line ever to win an Oscar, except maybe when the lovely Marisa Tomei couldn’t keep her Italian/Irish accent straight in “My Cousin Vinny”! There was no real exploration into why a young beautiful woman had no friends, even suitors at her door, no family, no one even to call in a emergency! A woman as beautiful as Hallie, in a small town, with nothing to do had to wait 11 years to finally throw herself at the first person to speak to her nicely. I’m sure one of the patrons at the restaurant would try and date her, people always flirt with beautiful single waitresses or even become friends over time. In fact we know nothing about her except how she looks on her knees naked. Her performance was clearly not Oscar worthy, I’m wondering what caused this poorly written/acted and utterly unbelievable character to win an Oscar. Any ideas?
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.
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.
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
On a more academic and mature note:
I’ve definitely wacked it to this scene.
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.
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.
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.
@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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well it certainly didn’t open any doors for her!! She’s been in what (1) major movie since then!! So maybe there’s is something to it being damaging, at least for her. How many other Oscar winners careers get worse directly after winning an Oscar in their prime? She is gorgeous but we she her dressed down the entire movie, uglied up if you will, and I’m sorry but go back and look at the Line “I want you to make me feel good” there are others but that line is so clearly poorly acted till it’s actually shocking to see in a major film. The movie itself is not believable, a beautiful young woman has no friends or men trying to be in her life, even though she’s apparently been single for the 11 years her husband has been on death row! I say apparently because the only thing we actually learn about her, in the movie is how she looks on her knees! There’s a reason why several better actors turned down the part, they found the script demeaning as well!! In fact they asked Angela Bassett first, a truly great actress whom since turning that part down has been working steadily! Including her role in Black Panther as the queen and she steals the show in the second movie. She can also hold her head high as she walks by as she’s never had to get on her knees naked for any cameras!! Husband died, son died, sex with an old man whose dad calls you vile names while you work at a restaurant where nobody befriends you??? I’m not seeing the gorgeousness or even the point of the movie!!