BY KIMBERLY ALLISON
Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball is a depiction of one man’s journey to overcome his lifelong ignorance, but this seems to be the film’s only accomplishment. The grisly drama attempts to address pressing racial issues, but instead it creates a monstrous web of unanswered questions and unfulfilled plotlines cleverly masked by brilliant acting and cinematic beauty.
The first half of Monster’s Ball revolves around a family of executioners responsible for the last days of a black death-row inmate. Billy Bob Thornton is striking as Hank Grotowski, a native Georgian who has spent his life following in his father’s footsteps both as a corrections officer in the state penitentiary and as a racist. Peter Boyle plays Thornton’s retired father and delivers a gritty performance that is a welcome change from his role as the wise-cracking Frank Barone on CBS’s Everybody Loves Raymond. Heath Ledger is Sonny Grotowski, Thornton’s son, a third-generation corrections officer who never lives up to the family’s tough-guy standards and dares to have black friends. Hank and Sonny are part of an execution team assigned to Lawrence Musgrove, a cop-killer skillfully portrayed by Sean Combs, whose impressive performance suggests that his acting career may have as much earning potential as P. Diddy’s current line of work.
Thornton’s portrayal of Grotowski is flawless—his best since 1996’s Sling Blade—and helps one forget such disappointments as 1998’s A Simple Plan. He becomes Hank and leaves no trace of Billy Bob on the screen. Grotowski’s dialogue is limited and purposely lacks profundity, forcing Thornton to convey meaning through action. When Hank descends his front porch to meet his son’s two black friends with a shotgun, his simple dialogue is directed to Sonny: “Tell them to get off my property.” Thornton delivers the line with both contempt and regret. His tone, as well his reluctance to look directly at the young boys, suggests that he recognizes the racism in his actions but forces himself to proceed. Such inner conflict could never have been conveyed by the dialogue alone. Thornton’s ability to communicate emotion helps the audience understand Grotowski’s struggles with his son, his father, and his own identity, after a tragic event alters both his perception of the world and the course of his life.
Ledger is static in contrast, partly by fault of writers Milo Addica and Will Rokos. Sonny Grotowski lacks depth and creates unanswerable questions. The family’s black sheep chokes during his first execution, but we are never given any indication as to why this occurs. Nor are we given any suggestion as to why Hank admittedly hates his son. Poor character development leaves little room for Ledger to shine.
Enter Halle Berry. As Leticia Musgrove, Lawrence’s wife, Berry delivers her most outstanding performance since 1999’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Her appearance is altered drastically for her role as a single black mother in a racist community, yet her natural charisma immediately draws us into Leticia’s predicament. In contrast to Ledger’s Sonny, Berry’s Musgrove is given noteworthy dialogue that manages to enhance a plot that is otherwise in disarray. “I’m only here so you can say goodbye to your son,” Leticia says in response to Lawrence’s attempts to be affectionate on the day of his execution. Berry delivers more than just a line; she delivers an entire performance. Her words are cold, quick and desperate, and her actions are both nonchalant and nerve-racking. Her hand’s slight tremor as she puffs on her cigarette effectively illustrates her inner turmoil and uncertainty about the future. Berry proves herself worthy of her Best Actress Academy Award as she fights to retain her job, her house, her son and her sanity against impossible tragedies.
The film’s themes of racial hatred, career failure, and self-blame are recognizable but underdeveloped. Thornton’s character is clearly racist at the film’s opening when he forces Sonny’s two black friends off his property. Soon after, he is naming his newly-purchased gas station after the black woman (Leticia) he is dating. Grotowski’s sudden attitude change with regard to race is just as inexplicable and unsatisfying as the abrupt disappearance of his feelings of failure. Hank places himself at fault for many of the film’s predictable plot twists as well, but he abandons these feelings in an off-screen moment of enlightenment that creates yet another deep fissure in the story.
Monster’s Ball also tries to establish a bond between Thornton’s Grotowski and Berry’s Musgrove (whose on-screen chemistry is mediocre at best) through their sons, Sonny and Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun), but the bond is not fully explored, nor is it a gratifying explanation for their sudden love affair. Writers Addica and Rokos seem to have given themselves a second chance at a bond based on Grotowski’s integral role in making Leticia a widow, but they fail to successfully develop this option as well, leaving the audience trying to cope with one too many leaks in the holey plotline.
Aesthetically, the film never falters. Forster and cinematographer Roberto Schaefer skillfully capture the essence of each scene. They use lingering shots of burning cigarettes, empty rooms, and photographs to create dramatic pauses. Such breaks allow the audience to absorb the action it has just witnessed and to regroup for another emotionally harrowing sequence.
Matt Chesse’s editing is at its best during the first 45 minutes of Monster’s Ball—the best 45 minutes of the entire film—when the “monster” himself, Lawrence Musgrove, is awaiting death. Chesse creates depth and parallelism between Lawrence and Leticia, bouncing back and forth between the activities on death row and in Leticia’s home. The scene is reminiscent of Dead Man Walking, but Combs’ Musgrove is a welcome departure from Sean Penn’s Matthew Poncelet in that Musgrove accepts his fate and doesn’t fight death. This allows him to be fully effective in conveying what is the film’s best line of dialogue as well as its main theme: “It truly takes a human being to really see a human being.”
Monster’s Ball had the potential to be a gripping tale of love lost and love found, but that potential is lost in a sea of subplots that drowns the main narrative. Forster is left with a film that is little more than a star vehicle for Berry’s and Thornton’s most compelling performances to date.