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.
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.
The 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.
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?”
MONSTER'S BALL (2001). Dir.: Marc Forster. Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Heath Ledger, Peter Boyle, Sean Combs, Mos Def, Coronji Calhoun. Scr.: Milo Addica and Will Rokos.