Directed by Marc Forster
Monster's Ball is a murky drama that has a lot on its mind, including racism, suicide, and the death penalty. While its ambitions are commendable, its execution is scattered and unconvincing, creating an end result that is far more depressing than optimistic.
Surprisingly, the world in Monster's Ball is black and white in more ways than one. There is no gray and no questioning, only actions on one side of the fence or the other.
Monster's Ball (from the term for the wardens' party the night before a con's execution) revolves around the intertwining stories of two families, one black and one white.
Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs, better known as P. Diddy, formerly Puff Daddy) is married to Leticia (Halle Berry, Swordfish), and together they have a son, Tyrell (newcomer Coronji Calhoun). Leticia's been dealing with her husband's inevitable execution for 11 years, roughly the equivalent of Tyrell's entire life.
Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton, Bandits) is a corrections officer who, along with his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger, A Knight's Tale), oversees Lawrence's execution.
Sonny can't handle the grind of walking men to their execution and he loses control during Lawrence's last walk. His actions infuriate his father and they go to blows.
The two are part of an unapologetic – and unforgiving – family. Hank's father, Buck (Peter Boyle, TV's Everybody Loves Raymond) is a confirmed and outspoken racist whose wife committed suicide. He's the quintessential uncompromising, bitter old man.
As fate would have it, Hank comes to the aid of Leticia when her son falls victim to a hit and run during a severe rainstorm, setting in motion a chain of events that are not always believable.
The film's biggest problem is its lack of a real transition. Hank simply wakes up one day and starts doing things differently, setting out to methodically change his life. The fact that he was previously a tried-and-true racist following in his father's footsteps is quickly brushed aside. There's no questioning of his upbringing and he makes no attempt to confront his father regarding his racist ways. Instead, he simply moves his dad to a nursing home, fully acknowledging that he doesn't love his father and simply wanting him to go out in peace.
Director Marc Forster (Everything Put Together) and screenwriters Will Rokos and Milo Addica (both with a theatrical background) are working from the point of view that a lot of what goes on with people lies beneath the surface, unspoken and unseen. This would work in a book, where you can get inside the heads of the characters, but on film, Hank in particular appears to experience no internal conflict.
While the acting itself is top shelf, the actors are merely fleshing out caricatures. The intense performances from Berry and Ledger only add to the film's jumbled tone and make Thornton's monotone character that much more difficult to care about and understand.
Do The Right Thing
Considering the entire Grotowski family's lack of emotional maturity and introspection, Hank's quiet, internal rebirth is all the more unbelievable.
In an effort to start anew, Hank quits his job at the Department of Corrections and purchases a local gas station. What doesn't ring true is that he is very quick to rename the station after Leticia, whom he's quick to refer to as his girlfriend.
Which brings in to question the relationship between Leticia and Hank. At one point Hank offers to take care of Leticia and she quickly responds that she needs somebody to take care of her. Co-dependent? Yes. Using each other? Yes. True love? No. Their relationship is so tentative that it can hardly be considered heartwarming or even reassuring.
In all fairness, the movie does make an impact, and its good intentions are evident, but ultimately its story and events do not stand up to close scrutiny.
The world of Monster's Ball is filled with bitter people, trapped people, and people put in situations not entirely of their own making. The point is that you can indeed break free of these bonds and make a change. However, it's a long, dark journey to arrive at this modestly optimistic conclusion, a journey that is oftentimes hard to watch.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.