Monster’s Ball

Rated: R
Stars:   Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Sean Combs
Director:   Marc Foster
Writer:    Will Rokos and Milo Addica

Monster’s Ball is a compelling story of two desperate people who find solace with one another after suffering terrible losses. It just so happens that one is black and the other white and it all takes place in Georgia. It’s clearly not an exploration of racial issues and divisions as much as it is an acknowledgement of the basic similarities of the human condition: a need to love and be loved, for security and a sense of belonging.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Hank Grotowski, a Georgia corrections officer whose racist father Buck (Peter Boyle) had been one before him. Hank’s only offspring Sonny (Heath Ledger) has followed in their footsteps, but lacks the hard-heartedness for supporting their racist ways and the stomach for working at the penitentiary. Hank’s in charge of the team getting ready to execute prisoner Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs), a triple murderer, who accepts his punishment. With his execution, Lawrence leaves behind wife, Leticia (Halle Berry) and young son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun).

Leticia has no great love for her husband. She makes it clear to him during her last visit that she’s there only for Tyrell. Still, you get a feeling that, alive, Lawrence at least serves her with a sense of security, meager as that might be. Leticia’s life is crumbling: she’s losing the house; her car’s in disrepair, she’s forced to take the overnight shift where she waitresses. Struggling to cope, Leticia drowns her sorrows in miniature bottles of whiskey while Tyrell, grossly obese, seems content to eat his way through life, sneaking bites of candy bars and snacks every time his mother is out of sight. Leticia’s not a good parent; she berates Tyrell, calling him a “fat little piggy”, as she smacks him around.

Meanwhile, Sonny is a disappointment to Hank both at home and on the job. In fact, Hank actually tells the kid he hates him. And there isn’t much of anything that Hank does like except the occasional bowl of chocolate ice cream and cup of coffee. Hank lives a “go-to-work, come-back-home” existence while caring for his embittered, sick father. It’s wearing on him, and after circumstances involving Sonny turn dire, Hank’s tired restlessness edges toward depression and sadness. He quits his job at the prison and begins making some changes.

Hank comes to Leticia’s aid one night in what for him might be considered a surprising act of kindness. At this point he only knows her as the waitress from the diner and not as the wife of the man he helped execute. That simple act leads to a growing involvement and even when he does discover who she is, he keeps it to himself. It’s irrelevant. This is a relationship begun on its own terms, a fresh start. They fulfill what each has secretly longed for, what each has lacked in every other relationship they’ve ever had. And had their paths not crossed that night, while each was consumed with sadness and hopelessness, there never would have been anything more than the moments shared as waitress and customer at the diner.

The mood is dark and the pace deliberately slow; the camera work and editing depicts the characters’ instability and hopelessness at times. Everything fits. Billy Bob Thornton’s and Halle Berry’s performances are exquisite in the care they have taken with their roles and that’s why even the slow pacing works. You become totally involved with these people even though at first their faults loom large. Heath Ledger took a risk here, tossing off his matinee idol looks and star billing for a sparser but edgier role. He does a good job as does Peter Boyle as the despicable old man. There is a scene near the end where Leticia makes a discovery. How she handles it is one of those delicious moments of truth often lacking in films.

Lotta says: Monster’s Ball is exceptionally well written with wonderfully realized characters. I particularly liked the manner in which the death row sequences were handled – with unparalleled sensitivity and respect. Be advised: rated R for nudity, strong sexual content, language and violence.

Reviewed 2/20/01