- Monster’s Ball (2001) movie 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 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 (2001)
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 (2001) Movie Review” 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) Review: Unsatisfying Whole” last updated in January 2022.