Director: Marc Forster
Studio: Lions Gate Films
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Heath Ledger, Peter Boyle, and Sean “Puffy” Combs
Ah, the curse of the stunningly beautiful actress. General audiences and hard-nosed critics alike will include your name on the short list of the world’s most attractive movie stars. However, when discussing the talented thespians of this or any generation, your name would not even crack the Top 100. Halle Berry epitomizes this cruel affliction. Her few film highlights (The Dorothy Dandridge Story, Boomerang) have taken a backseat to the seemingly endless list of lowlights (BAPS, Bulworth, The Rich Man’s Wife, Race the Sun, . . . you get the point). Constantly searching for acceptance as a serious artist, the lovely Ms. Berry seems to do what any glamorous film star would do when they want to earn respect-play the most unglamorous character available (see Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys and Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich). The “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” approach has been effective for Berry before in films like Jungle Fever and Losing Isaiah, but not to the magnitude that it comes together for her in Monster’s Ball.
Berry plays Leticia Musgrove-a waitress who cannot hold down a job, a mother who cannot stop her grossly overweight son, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun), from eating, and a wife who cannot bring herself to care about the fact that her husband, Lawrence (Sean Combs), is a condemned man and will be executed soon. Oh yes, and she faces eviction if she does not stay current with her mortgage payments. One can infer with confidence that Leticia is a woman who has never been truly taken care of, and quite frankly is tired of taking care of herself and those around her.
Her white knight (literally and figuratively) arrives in the unlikely form of racist correction officer Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) who, unbeknownst to Leticia, helped execute her husband. Hank is the middle generation of a trio of prison guards, with his retired father (Peter Boyle) delivering racist monologues with the oxygen-tank-assisted air that he breathes, and his disappointingly tolerant and compassionate son (Heath Ledger) desperate for some type of meaning or acceptance in his life.
The first act of the film establishes all of the above with both patience and power. This is due as much to Marc Forster’s unobtrusive and unassuming direction as it is to Roberto Schaefer’s lush and lingering cinematography (they teamed up once before to acclaim in the Sundance Film Festival entry Everything Put Together). The soul of the film is seen in the way that the camera pays attention to the details of each setting; the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the local diners, the backroads traveled by Leticia and Hank, and the mildly dilapidated quarters where they each live. Gone is the kinetic MTV-style editing to which we have grown accustomed. Instead, the “action” moves at the unapologetic pace of, well…life. Life in the deep south, that is. The pain of our lead characters is portrayed as much on their faces as it is in the sad, lonely country music played in the sad, lonely diners along the sad, lonely roads of the sad, lonely town.
Leticia and Hank cross paths a few times before they actually connect, and when they do, you understand their unspoken bond. Berry and Thornton each have done an exceptional job of bringing out the rock-bottomness of their characters. For two people who are questioning who they are and whom they have in this world, it makes sense that when they discover one another, there is a profound attraction. This attraction initially manifests itself in a graphically bold sex scene, apparently showing that human attachment transcends ideas about class, race, and what have you.
This raw physical encounter serves as an epiphany for Hank, and he makes drastic changes in his life as a result. Leticia timidly, but desperately, goes along for the ride. The obvious issue here is the suggestion that sexual encounters are the catholicon for racial tension. Surely, the idea of the races mixing in “jungle fever” frenzy is far from a neoteric notion. But implying that it is somehow responsible for reversing years of handed-down racism in one man’s life is a bit of a stretch, to say the least.
My contention is that Monster’s Ball is a flawed story with near flawless execution by the entire cast. For those of you used to Peter Boyle in the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, or Sean Combs in any one of his videos or concert appearances, you are in for a surprise at their remarkably restrained performances. I recommend this film for those of you who enjoy intense character studies as opposed to breakneck action-thrillers.
Finally, it appears that the Academy agrees with my praise of Berry’s performance-Oscar nominations have just been announced, and Halle was among the nominees for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Maybe she can shake that “beautiful movie star” thing after all.