Monster's Ball (2001)

reviewed by
Harvey S. Karten


MONSTER'S BALL 

Reviewed by Harvey Karten Lions Gate Films Director: Marc Forster Writer: Milo Addica, Will Rokos Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Heath Ledger, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Sean Combs, Mos Def, Will Rokos, Milo Addica, Coronji Calhoun, Charles Cowan Jr., Taylor LaGrange Screened at: Broadway Scr Rm., NYC, 11/27/01

Despite the appearance of one unlikely coincidence too many, "Monster's Ball" shares honors with Todd Field's "In the Bedroom" as the most emotionally touching films of the year. Directed in an appropriately restrained manner by Marc Forster with lead character Bill Bob Thornton about as talkative as he was as the title character in Joel Coen's "The Man Who Wasn't There," "Monster's Ball" is not only a moving family drama of anger and redemption but a resonant statement on a society grounded in hatred and racism.

"Monster's Ball" takes place in the Deep South (actually filmed in the New Orleans area including shots of the infamous Angola Penitentiary in Angola). A cop killer, Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs), is to be executed in a monster's ball, that is, following a ceremony that is without the presence of a preacher or a lawyer. He is visited on his final afternoon by his chain-smoking wife, Leticia (Halle Berry) and his 189-pound pre-teen boy, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun). When Sonny Grotowski (Heath Ledger), the son of fellow corrections officer Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) throws up during the prisoner's last mile, he is beaten and called a pussy by his dad--who seems to have absorbed the racism and hatred of his aging father, Buck (Peter Boyle). After both the 11-year-old Tyrell and the 20-something Sonny die violently at about the same time, Hank forms an unlikely bond with the condemned prisoner's widow, Leticia.

What gives the film its claim to artistic prominence is the way that both Hank and Leticia overcome their mistrust, fear, and racist feelings. There is no single moment that the transformation takes place. Under Forster's restrained direction, the unhappy couple take incremental steps, unencumbered by any trace of a soap-opera score, to emerge as human beings with an optimistic future. Peter Boyle's character Buck, who merits some claim for our sympathy based on his physical affliction (he is dependent on an oxygen cannister), comes across as a Stone Age remnant of the old south, using the "n" word to describe his black neighbors, making derogatory remarks on his departed wife, and illustrating graphically the way his malicious apple does not fall far from his son's nasty tree. The 36-year- old Halle Berry, who reportedly received a cool million-dollar bonus for briefly exposing her top in Dominic Seca's "Swordfish," turns in a role that bares all-- combining the gritty portrayal of a dope fiend in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" with a touching characterization as a reforming crack addict in Stephen Gyllenhaal's drama, "Losing Isaiah." Berry runs the emotional gamut wonderfully from a self-hating casualty of racism to a more independent and loving person in the hands of a man who cares. Almost needless to say Billy Bob Thornton, best known as a man who is hardly there (mentally retarded in "Sling Blade" and reticent ex-jailer here), centers Milo Addica and Will Rokos's script--a hangdog loser who recovers his humanity.

It's difficult to believe that the man who helmed the small and forgettable feature "Everything Put Together" could make such a creative surge this time around, but credit should be given to Roberto Schaefer, Forster's regular cinematographer, for his wide-screen lensing of this sincere, moving tale.

Rated R. Running time: 108 minutes. (C) 2001 by Harvey Karten, film_critic@compuserve.com

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