"Monster's Ball" is a serious movie made by seriously talented people, and I never quite came 'round to it.
Part of the problem is that it throws so much tragedy at you in its first half, you figure this is one of those Southern gothic tales where a body's going to drop every 15 minutes. I won't say I was disappointed when the death tally ended, but it took me too long to realize I was supposed to take the surviving characters' emotions at face value instead of anticipating the Grim Reaper's next blow.
Part of the problem is that some of the emotional dots just haven't been connected. Halle Berry, for instance, plays Leticia Musgrove, the wife of a death row inmate, Lawrence (Sean Combs), who's about to walk his last walk with the assistance of racist corrections officer Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton).
Leticia and Lawrence have one scene together, and later references drive home the idea that she's filled with resentment and anger toward him. Yet at a strategic point late in the movie, we see she has a picture of him on her bathroom wall. The photo helps the filmmakers put across a plot point. It doesn't scan otherwise. But after seeing "Monster's Ball" a second time, I think I've pinpointed the main problem, and I'll phrase this as delicately as I can: If you're trying to show that a character has reformed his racist ways, you need to present a more convincing argument for this than that he enjoys getting Halle Berry into the sack.
Granted, Berry has been de-glamorized almost as much as possible, and she and Thornton play their scenes as truthfully as they can. But as you can't help but see in the film's cathartic, graphic sex scene, Leticia/Berry is a very attractive woman. Although we're supposed to conclude that Hank is taking a big leap by becoming involved with her, we easily accept their coupling because we sure don't think it's such a big leap. If the filmmakers had cast a more ordinary-looking actress, like, say, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, they would have had to flesh out Hank's character more to make his transition credible. As it is, Hank is one way, then he's another way, and we buy the shift because 1) We want to believe that characters will cease being racist jerks, 2) We want to see him with Berry, and 3) Thornton betrays so little artifice in his acting that we accept everything he does.
Berry has the showier, more emotionally charged role, and at times you can see her working, but you never feel like she's slumming. The power of her performance may be that you're not constantly aware of how underwritten Leticia is. Directed by Swiss-born Marc Forster and written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos, "Monster's Ball" presents a modern-day version of William Faulkner's Deep South, where the sins of the fathers are the sins of the sons, the past haunts the present, and society is infected by racism and fears of miscegenation.
Hank stands in the middle of three generations of men so tainted. As the early scenes reveal with the deliberateness of an intricate jigsaw puzzle being carefully assembled, Hank's father, Buck (Peter Boyle), is a hateful racist and bully, and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) is a more sensitive soul.
Hank, Sonny's superior officer at the prison, froths at the mouth less than his father does, but he's shown to be equally malignant. Leticia, meanwhile, is a put-upon mother about to get evicted from her apartment and at a loss as to how to keep her obese boy, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun), from sneaking candy bars.
Hank and Leticia are brought together not by fate but by Fate. The screenplay gives us some coincidences and tragedies and then adds another one. We're supposed to view Hank and Leticia as suffering from a combination of their own and society's failings, but with this last point we become too aware that the hand of God is giving them the finger.
In a way this is the romantic-comedy formula inverted. Instead of a meet-cute, we get a meet-tragic; all of these awful things must happen to bring together one lonely man and one lonely woman. First they - and the audience - are punished, then everyone gets to enjoy a hot - albeit desperate - sex scene.
There's something off about the equation. The second half is aiming for a tone of hopefulness and redemption, but it doesn't feel fully earned; we cease to feel the weight of those earlier tragedies.
Forster's previous feature was the 2000 Sundance entry "Everything Put Together," a movie more notable for its visual style than the believability of the characters' behavior. "Monster's Ball" is a more accomplished work; Forster is especially good at establishing and sustaining a mood.
He also is aided by an excellent supporting cast, with effectively low-key turns by Ledger and Combs, Boyle's casually malicious portrayal of Buck, and Mos Def providing the movie's one positive model for fatherhood as Ryrus, an African-American mechanic neighbor of Hank's. A brief confrontation between Hank and Ryrus is, in a way, as tense and revealing as anything in the movie.
But "Monster's Ball" also has awkward moments where characters make the kind of statements you hear in movies but wouldn't believe in real life. Sometimes the writing is too precious, at other times too on-the-nose. Hank shouldn't have to say, "I haven't felt anything in so long" for us to get the idea.
Then there's the big picture: Leticia needs to be taken care of; Hank needs to take care of somebody. In a Southern society still marred by racism, the prospect of a black woman gaining security by moving into a white man's big house isn't exactly a cutting-edge solution.
2 1/2 stars
Directed by Marc Forster; written by Milo Addica, Will Rokos; photographed by Roberto Schaefer; edited by Matt Chesse; production designed by Monroe Kelly; produced by Lee Daniels. A Lions Gate Films release; opens Friday, Feb. 1. Running time: 1:48. MPAA rating: R (strong sexual content, language and violence).
Hank Grotowski - Billy Bob Thornton
Leticia Musgrove - Halle Berry
Buck Grotowski - Peter Boyle
Sonny Grotowski - Heath Ledger
Lawrence Musgrove - Sean Combs Ryrus Cooper - Mos Def
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun