Monster's Ball
directed by Marc Forster
(Lion's Gate, 2001)

Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) is a second-generation corrections officer barreling toward a midlife crisis that's about to turn his world upside-down. And that's good.

But it's not going to be easy on him, his son, his father or the woman who makes it all possible, Leticia Musgrove.

Meanwhile, Musgrove (Halle Berry) is headed for quite a few crises of her own, driven by her difficulties holding down a job and keeping her house, the challenge of raising her orally fixated son (Coronji Calhoun) and the fact that her husband (Sean "Puffy" Combs, a.k.a. Puff Daddy, a.k.a. P. Diddy) is about to be electrocuted for a crime that's never delineated but never denied.

To say that director Marc Forster ties up all these loose ends would be grossly inaccurate. Monster's Ball isn't so much about resolving things as about people making hard choices and hoping for the best.

To do this Forster uses a cascading stream of powerful images: people sitting alone in long, near-empty hallways that angle off into nowhere, eating alone in the all-night diner, driving alone in their cars. Even sex isn't a face-to-face encounter, at least not at first.

Adding to the sense of isolation and emptiness are the muted color scheme and the sparse musical score. Colorwise, little stands out besides the glow of the all-night diner sign. Musically, there's an occasional crush of glum chords and a fair number of distant country tunes played on a car radio or jukebox.

Much of the dialogue is delivered with little more than a whisper, and many of the most moving scenes -- Musgrove's death in the electric chair or Hank burning his corrections officer uniform -- are all but wordless. Ultimately, the image of Hank's father (Peter Boyle) sitting on the end of the bed in a nursing home says more than a 20-minute monologue could touch on.

By now, thanks in part to the Oscars, most people know that Hank and Leticia become "a thing." But Monster's Ball is less about what happens than about how and why.

It is not an easy film to watch. Hank and Leticia aren't sympathetic characters by nature. They become sympathetic only after a series of seemingly endless, gut-wrenching emotional traumas in which neither is blameless.

Much of the press for Monster's Ball went to Berry, who won at least four awards, including an Oscar, for her acting and was nominated for at least five more. But some of the other performances are no less touching, especially Heath Ledger as Hank's son, whose death provides the biggest shock in a film not known for a shortage of graphic sex and violence, and an excellent turn by Combs, especially in his last meeting with his son.

Monster's Ball is a film that will be written about and debated for years. It's graphic, it's grueling, it's very unpleasant at times. Its message of hope is a mixed one at best.

On the surface, its tale of a white racist who winds up in a relationship with the African-American widow of the last man he executes sounds like the work of a focus group. But beneath the surface it festers, boils and churns out a powerful procession of uncompromising images and observations about everything from fatherhood to finding our best selves.

If that's your cup of meat, go for it. You'll rarely see portions this ample.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 28 September 2002

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