Monster's Ball

Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 02/09/02 01:26:37

"Halle Berry, of all people, gives one of the year's strongest performances"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“It truly takes a human being to see a human being,” says Lawrence, a character from “Monster’s Ball” who faces execution. This simple thought sits at the center of this densely layered tragedy as we follow two horrendously flawed characters who don’t see each other as they really are until they lose the embodiments of their frustrations. This movie tells two stories of the same characters, one of redemption and one of love. Sometimes, to forgive a human being is to see a human being, and maybe that, in and of itself, is a form of love.

“Monster’s Ball,” a debut film from Marc Forster, tells the story of Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), a white Corrections Officer who works on Death Row with his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger). The next execution will be Sonny’s first on the job. The two live under the same roof with their racist old crank of a father, Buck (Peter Boyle), himself a former Corrections Officer. Hank has inherited his father’s anger and uses it on Sonny. Without a wife or a mother, the two share a prostitute (but not at the same time), with whom they have quick, cold and empty encounters.

We first meet the man about to executed, a black man named Lawrence (Sean Combs), as he bids farewell to his wife, Leticia (Halle Berry), and overweight pre-teen son, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun). That night, Lawrence’s own Monster’s Ball, which is a term for a prisoner’s last night on earth, he draws sketches of his guards, Hank and Sonny. Sonny, who sees the humanity in Lawrence, can’t make it down to the end of the walk to the electric chair, which sets off an angry outburst in Hank. Later, Sonny gives the anger back to Hank, which results in Sonny’s death.

Meanwhile, Leticia, now a widow, must try and keep her son from over-eating and gaining weight. By humiliating him and beating on him, Leticia is a mother without a plan or guidance as to how to raise her child. Her son weighs 189 lbs and has a drawer full of candy that he keeps secret from her. She has no car, has been late with the rent money on her home and works as a waitress at the local truckstop, where Hank goes to eat after a shift. Leticia and Hank have never met, but that changes when their paths cross as Leticia suffers another tragic loss: Her son.

Hank helps Leticia get her son to the hospital then ends up taking her home. A relationship develops slowly, not out of love and attraction, but out of need. These two have no one else to turn to. Hank eventually sees Leticia not just as a black woman, but as a human being with forgivable flaws. Leticia eventually sees a man in Hank that can make her feel good about herself, even though she remains unaware of the tie that also binds them, her dead husband.

Much has been made about the “steamy’ love scene between Thornton and Berry, almost as though “Monster’s Ball” has some sort of shameless crotch scene, a la “Basic Instinct.” This scene does not play sexy and does not try to arouse. It is a sad scene, a tragic scene, not a rape, but a cry for help. We have already seen these two characters at their worst in past scenes and it stays with us. What happens as a result of the encounter advances Hank’s story as much as it does Leticia’s. It has the power to heal and not complicate. It is not sex for sex sake.

That scene, as well as many others (especially the final), could only be pulled off by the best actors on the planet. While Halle Berry has never really achieved greatness before, she certainly deserves the attention she has been given for her performance. Berry shows every layer of Leticia’s aching soul while also showing fearlessness in her scenes of outright rage and desire. The final scene, the one that brings it all home, depends on the look in Berry’s eyes and it works wonders on the viewer, especially after having been put through one hell of a mill for 110 minutes. This movie belongs to Halle Berry.

Thornton gives a great performance as well, though his somewhat stoic demeanor in the second half goes only a couple notches above “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” But this works in the movie’s favor as Hank instinctively internalizes his deep feelings for Leticia so as not to upset his emotionally barren father, played beautifully by Peter Boyle. Heath Ledger’s performance comes and goes, and while his suicide scene is shocking and tragic, I still wish he would have done the same thing ten minutes into “A Knight’s Tale.” And Sean Combs does give an effective performance as Lawrence.

As hopeful and beautifully unconventional as the ending may be, “Monster’s Ball” probably won’t have you leaving the theater feeling good about humanity. It is a dark, uncompromising film, one that piles tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy. The screenplay by Milo Addica and Will Rocos often sidesteps conventional confrontation scenes and the perils of interracial relationships, save for Berry’s tension-filled run-in with Hank’s father, which in itself, serves as an example of the screenplay’s powers. But the ending of the movie remains silent, and for this everyone involved deserves applause. The scene will, if nothing else, have you feeling good about the beauty of cinema without words.

Because “Monster’s Ball” has a main character who happens to be a racist, one would expect the story to be about his redemption. Refreshingly, it is not. In a subtle way, it tells the story of Leticia’s redemption. In the first hour, we watch Leticia seeing her son as just a “fat, fat kid.” Only in his death does she find joy in her son’s indulgences. Hank has no fond memories of Sonny, only his uniform. In burning it, he finds himself. In Leticia, he doesn’t look to redeem himself. Instead, he looks to just stop and start over. Romantic love may take a while for these two, but by the movie’s end, Berry’s eyes fill the viewer with a bit of comfort food, like a bowl of chocolate ice cream at the end of a good, tragic cry.

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