BY KRISTIN WAGNER
There are many good reasons to see Monster’s Ball; one-eyed cretins and hairy blue monsters as seen in Monsters, Inc. are not one of them. Monster’s Ball has a different breed of monster jump out of the closet; a less obvious kind maybe, but much more frightening. The movie tackles serious adult issues in a matter-of-fact way. Although it does leave room for speculation about the pace and morals of the main characters’ affair, the film provokes thought and shows there is hope for even the most embittered of us to find redemption through love.
Monster’s Ball draws its viewers into the brawling world of the South, where Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) is caught in a cycle of violence enveloping his racist father Buck (Peter Boyle), and his desperate son Sonny (Heath Ledger). All three generations of the Grotowski clan work (Buck has retired) as correction officers in the local state prison. While the elder two stoically perform their duty on death row, Sonny vomits before work and on Lawrence Musgrove’s (Sean “P. Diddy” Combs) last walk. In fact, there is a lot of gagging during the course of this movie. It’s almost as if the character’s conflicted emotions burst out when the pressure to remain a one-dimensional figure becomes overwhelming.
Leticia, vividly portrayed by the surprisingly unglamorous Halle Berry, is Lawrence’s impoverished widow, who has starkly lost control of her life and the candy gorges of her obese son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun). After surrendering to the bottle the day of her husband’s execution she lashes out at her son, calling him a “fat piggy.” It remains unclear how long she has supported her husband, since she has worn their wedding ring throughout his eleven years in jail, but on her last visit she makes it only too clear, between nervous cigarette pulls, that she is only there for her son to say goodbye. Her jitters only cease after she and Hank discuss her “pretty” curtains, followed by clinging, cathartic sex, during which the camera angles switch incessantly between different pieces of furniture.
Billy Bob Thornton deserves praise for his emotional range and his ability to fill in the somewhat spartan script with life. Thornton has proven he can convince both as a small town barber in The Man That Wasn’t There, and as a likeable hypochondriac inmate in Bandits. The actors are meat on the skeleton of the, at times, trite (“I want to take care of you” “I need to be taken care of”) script. But the dialogue does have its moments: While portraying Hank from his cell, minutes before his execution, Lawrence tells him “it takes a human being to see a human being.” The caged “monster” captures the potential for humanity in the real monster beyond the bars.
When Letitia drives off after meeting Hank’s less-than-charming father, Hank’s desperate attempts at holding her back and explaining are heart-wrenching. The chemistry between the two is striking, especially during the love scenes. Hank’s protracted wooing of Letitia is believable and necessary to show his transformation into a human being. He starts out a mute extension of his hate-filled father, all three Grotowski generations living together, sans Hank’s often-derided mother. The viewer is left to speculate why the female side of the family is symbolically lacking, whether the mother’s absence is caused by Buck’s constant nagging, or whether this absence is the cause of all his hate.
Director Marc Forster makes a somewhat too obvious attempt at symbolism when letting Hank take his coffee “double-black”, and his chocolate ice cream with a specially requested, white plastic spoon. The casual blond hooker both Sonny and his father frequent in the same mechanical way does describe their opinion of women, but the two scenes are too apparent in their aim. The only difference is Sonny doesn’t feel quite as comfortable with the arrangement as his father; he asks the hooker out to dinner after paying her for her services.
The cinematography by Roberto Schaefer in the first half of the film drives home the characters’ despair amid their emotionally constrained environment. When the curtain opens to theatrically expose the audience of austere officials to witness Lawrence’s execution, the reflection in the plated glass places the ostensible “monster” bound to the chair among their rows. They are emotionally separated from the act of a fellow man being killed in front of their eyes through more than just a plated glass window. Yet this image displays him as an equal human being; one wonders whether, in a different environment, his place might as well be amongst his judges, not in the electric chair.
This picture is not the first to take up the touchy topic of modern interracial relationships, but it does so in a revealingly honest and grown-up manner. Last year’s Save the Last Dance does go beyond advertising interracial high-school relationships, but its characters have their lives ahead of them, and have not yet met with the kind of devastating losses and crises Letitia and Hank go through in the course of Monster’s Ball.
Despite a weaker second half of the movie, which seems to get ahead of itself where plot development is concerned (in a matter of days Hank and Leticia overcome their life-long prejudices and act like a giddy teenage couple), the actors and the excellent cinematography in the first half are well worth sticking around for the remainder. Halle Berry finally finds the role to exhibit her true acting caliber (previously hidden in movies like Swordfish), and her poignant performance is Oscar-worthy.