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Monster's Ball

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 06/23/04 01:15:38

"Lots of noise about very little."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

When Halle Berry picked up the best actress Oscar in 2002 there was a lot of muttering from those interested in such things that she'd won simply because she was black. It was seen as the Academy being at it's most heavy-handed and pc. What no-one seemed to discuss was the fact that she shouldn't have won full stop. The colour of her skin doesn't come into it. The fact that she's at best ordinary, in a dull and dishonest melodrama, should have been what people were talking about.

Halle Berry is Letitia, a struggling waitress in a small, run-down Georgian town. She's struggling because her husband Laurence (Sean 'Puff Daddy 'P Diddy' Coombs) is on death row, leaving her on her own to bring up her heavily over-weight son. Laurence is about to be executed by the father-and-son team of Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) and Sonny (Heath Ledger). Despite working and living together they have far from a happy life, also living with Hank's overtly racist father (Peter Boyle). The only thing Hank and Sonny have in common apart from their jobs is the same prostitute they both use.

Without revealing too much of the plot, Letitia and Hank are thrown together by seperate tragedies and both are forced to face up to harsh home truths in their own lives. Marc Forster's debut here certainly wants to deal with some heavy topics, but ultimately he doesn't have the courage of is convictions and wimps out when he should be going for the throat.

First things first, 'Monster's Ball' (the title refers to a condemned mans last night alive) is a depressing flick. Very depressing. And I'm fine with that. I have no problem having a good wallow in a downer. 'House of Sand and Fog', 'Raging Bull' for example...not flicks to cheer you up, but damn solid stuff and enjoyable with it. Unfortunately 'Monster's Ball' is nothing but depressing. It seems to think that putting its characters through the mincer and then spitting them out the other side is enough to create interest and to make us think that there's something going on beneath the surface. There's not however, and that's the most depressing thing of all.

Forster is aiming for controversy by having a widow start an affair with her husbands executioner. But when he has a chance to let this revelation explode over the screen...he wimps out. He's too cowardly to think about the ramifications of this situation and trys to trick the audience into solving it for him. Sorry fella, but that's not going to work. Don't ask the audience to do your work for you. This isn't a case of asking the audience to think for themselves, it's a case of asking the audience to think for the director. And that's dishonest, prompting questions he has no answer for himself. The same could be said for the racist father figure. Brilliantly played by Boyle, he's a malignant maggot at the centre of his family's rotting corpse, but his relationship to Hank is ill-defined. There's hints that Hanks shares his racism more by default than by design, but again when this racism could be confronted head-on with Letitia...nothing comes of it and nothing is said of it. So Hank shoots guns at black children to frighten them away but then goes to a black mechanic to get his car fixed so he isn't racist? Please, the area of racism is far more complex than that.

This lack of definition is also clear with Hank and Sonny. There's little insight into their troubled relationship and the involvement of their mother, but that's ok. They're troubled and that's all you need to know.

The cast have a hard time getting anything out of this ill-thought out script. I've mentioned Boyle and it should also be mentioned that Thornton does excellent work. An unpleasant man, Thornton still manages to make you sympathise, if not overly care, for his plight. He's a man only finding solace with a bowl of chocolate ice-cream. Poignant, but hardly deep like it would like to think it is.
Ledger also struggles with a thin role and just adds to the confusion of the character. If he's not sure of what the character's about, how are we supposed to know?

And then there's Halle Berry. It's impossible to lay aside the controversy of her Oscar win, because simply put, she's at best average here. She has two faces: depressed and crying and she milks them both here, but to little effect. There's no insight to her character and worse still, little sympathy. Incredible as it sounds considering her family is ripped apart, but Berry is simply incapable of making you care for her. A scene where she cries about her sons eating habits to Hank should be her Oscar clip, but is simply dreadful and embarrassing.

With these performances and light-weight script around him, you have to feel for someone so obviously superior to all of this like Thornton. The film may make a lot of noises about the death sentence, family brutality and ingrained racism, but that's all it is - noise. A few convenient and topical pegs to hang a not very interesting story on.

The ending of 'Monster's Ball' is trying for a moral conundrum and to make a message out of what it doesn't say rather than what it does say. However, due to a weak script and a weak central performance by Berry when it's not saying anything the film REALLY isn't saying anything, which is a consistent problem the film has. Some people may say 'Monster's Ball' is a a weighty drama about damaged people coming together who shouldn't be coming together. But I say it's all just blah.

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