- Monster’s Ball (2001) movie review: Starring Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, director Marc Forster and screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos’ interethnic socio-psychological drama has various good qualities and offers several memorable moments. Unfortunately, these don’t amount to an equally good and/or memorable whole.
- Monster’s Ball synopsis: After losing their respective sons, a racist, white former death-row guard (Billy Bob Thornton) and a part-black waitress (Halle Berry) begin a tentative relationship that will likely be destroyed once she finds out that the guard was involved in the execution of her husband (Sean Combs).
- Monster’s Ball won one Academy Award: Best Actress (Halle Berry). It received one additional nomination: Best Original Screenplay.
Monster’s Ball (2001) movie review: Starring Oscar winner Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, Marc Forster’s socio-psychological drama falls short of its soul-stirring goals
In the 2001 release 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, and third-time feature film director Marc Forster joined forces to create a series of memorable moments.
Besides the film’s dreamlike introduction, these include a graphic electric chair execution, a young man committing suicide in front of his father, a bereaved widow watching her son die in a hospital room, and a lengthy – and surprisingly “explicit” – sex scene. (“Explicit” for an American production; the sex is simulated.)
Alas, these memorable moments – admittedly, not all of them dramatically effective – 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 death-row 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. At the start, 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 that fried Leticia’s husband.
Intriguing premise, but hit-and-miss execution (no pun intended)
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, at times Hank’s brutal animosity toward Sonny feels gratuitous. After all, differences in temperament can justify their dysfunctional relationship only up to a point. So it’s up to the viewer to fill in the blanks.
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 the ultimately unsatisfying relationship between the racist (!) Hank and the ethnically mixed – but in the U.S. officially “black” – Leticia.
One example when suspension of disbelief is required: Hank’s participation in Lawrence’s electrocution 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 case of cinematic hit and miss.
On the upside, 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 Heath Ledger and veteran Peter Boyle (Joe, Young Frankenstein).
On the downside, he is far less successful in his handling of the two leads.
A two-time Academy Award nominee in the acting categories, Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade, 1996 [which earned him the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar]; 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 Oscar 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 humorous. 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 (2001) cast & crew
Director: Marc Forster.
Screenplay: Milo Addica & Will Rokos.
Billy Bob Thornton … Hank Grotowski
Halle Berry … Leticia Musgrove
Heath Ledger … Sonny Grotowski
Peter Boyle … Buck Grotowski
Sean Combs … Lawrence Musgrove
Mos Def … Ryrus Cooper
Coronji Calhoun … Tyrell Musgrove
John McConnell … Harvey Shoonmaker
Anthony Bean … Dappa Smith
Francine Segal … Georgia Ann Paynes
Anthony Michael Frederick … Billy
Carol Sutton … Mrs. Guillermo
Bernard Johnson … Deputy Jones
Milo Addica … Tommy Roulaine
Will Rokos … Warden Velasco
Marshall Cain … Correction officer
Cinematography: Roberto Schaefer.
Film Editing: Matt Chessé.
Music: Asche & Spencer.
Producer: Lee Daniels.
Production Design: Monroe Kelly.
Costume Design: Frank Fleming.
Production Companies: Lions Gate Films.
Distributor: Lions Gate Entertainment.
Running Time: 111 min.
Country: United States.
“Monster’s Ball (2001): Halle Berry + Billy Bob Thornton” notes
Producer Lee Daniels + screenwriters’ cameos
As seen above, future Best Director Academy Award nominee Lee Daniels (Precious, 2009) produced Monster’s Ball.
And screenwriters Milo Addico and Will Rokos play bit roles in the film.
Monster’s Ball movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.
Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry Monster’s Ball movie images: Lionsgate Films.
“Monster’s Ball (2001): Halle Berry + Billy Bob Thornton” last updated in September 2023.