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Set in the Southern United States, 'Monster's Ball' is a tale of a racist white man, Hank, who falls in love with a black woman named Leticia. Ironically Hank is a prison guard working on Death Row who executed Leticia's husband. Hank and Leticia's interracial affair leads to confusion and new ideas for the two unlikely lovers. Written by
It's very rare, but occasionally a film comes along that plays out so realistically that it doesn't even seem like you're watching a movie, but participating-- albeit as an observer-- in this particular drama of life that is unfolding around you. And so it is with `Monster's Ball,' a riveting film, directed by Marc Forster, that is so real it transcends entertainment and becomes a voyeuristic experience that leaves you with the sense that you've been through everything that's happened yourself. It's a thought provoking examination of relationships and perspectives, including the ingrained, subjective attitudes-- especially prejudices-- that have such a profound and lasting affect on our lives, as well as the lives of those around us. It's a film that says so much about the way we respond to one another, as well as certain situations, and why; in short, it's about the world that we, as a society, have created and must live in together-- right or wrong, good or bad, black or white. And at the heart of the story is a message that rings through loud and true; a perception that we can do better-- and must-- if we are to survive as a civilized, dignified and progressive species. In the final analysis, we are, all of us, members of the family of Man; and it's time we realize and acknowledge it.
After eleven years on death row at a Georgia State Penitentiary, Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) is out of appeals and is headed for the electric chair. There to make their final visit is Musgrove's wife, Leticia (Halle Berry), and their son, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun), while veteran corrections officer Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) oversees the proceedings. Also on hand is third-generation corrections officer Sonny Grotowski (Heath Ledger), who during Musgrove's final walk discovers he doesn't have the stomach required to perform his duties, which will later create some conflict with his father.
Bigotry, it seems, is something of a family trait; Hank's father, Buck (Peter Boyle), a retired corrections officer, is the product of a time when African Americans `knew their place.' But it's an attitude that's apparently become somewhat watered down in his family from one generation to the next. Hank seems almost indifferent, even apathetic, when it comes to race, though under stress, especially, he defers to his father's views. Sonny, however, has a mind of his own, and by nature is more willing to embrace all of the myriad and diverse aspects of life as he sees it. And with the three generations of Grotowski men living under one roof, needless to say, there is more than some tension in the household, which inevitably leads to tragedy.
Leticia, meanwhile, is riding a downward spiral in her own life, attempting to cope with both her husband's situation and a problem with her son, while having to make a living on top of it all. And just when it seems that her world is about to fall into total collapse, circumstances bring her into contact with-- of all people-- Hank Grotowski. Call it fate, or just one of those things; but it becomes a turning point, not only in their lives, but in the lives of a number of people close to them. And very soon, for Hank and Leticia, especially, the world becomes a very different place.
Working from a screenplay by Milo Addica and Will Rokos that is intelligent, incisive and uncompromising, Forster delivers an emotionally absorbing drama that is raw, insightful and presented with a subtle intensity that is so thoroughly engrossing it becomes mesmerizing. It's a film that does not allow the viewer the luxury of casual observation or an indifferent attitude; the story is told in terms that are so brutally honest and starkly realistic that it does not provide for neutral ground or ambiguity on the part of it's audience. This is powerful drama, and Forster makes sure that everyone watching has the sense of actually being included as the story unfolds. He makes you a part of this world in which Hank, Leticia and the others live-- there's no standing on the sidelines with this one. As in real life, with this film you are confronted with situations that demand resolution and force you to make decisions.
It takes a number of elements to make a truly great film, of course, and in this one they all come together beautifully-- especially in the performances, beginning with Billy Bob Thornton, who is without question one of the best leading men/character actors in the business. He's a true chameleon who never ceases to amaze with his versatility and his ability to create believable, interesting and memorable characters, from Karl (arguably his most memorable) in `Sling Blade,' to Jacob in `A Simple Plan,' or Russell in `Pushing Tin' to Hank in this film, whom he captures with absolutely incredible subtlety and depth. It's a terrific performance, delivered with nuance and restraint, and it should have earned him an Oscar nomination, as it was clearly one of the best performances of the year.
What really takes this film to a higher level, though, is the extraordinary performance by Halle Berry as Leticia, in whom she creates a finely layered, three-dimensional character that is singularly effective and entirely believable and real. In Leticia, you will find every conceivable emotion woven around conflicts born of the definitive complexities of life, the things we all experience in one way or another at one time or another, and to which everyone will be able to relate on some level, according to personal experience. In this performance, Berry does it all and gives her all, and it's work for which she deservedly was awarded the Oscar for Best Actress. When you come away from this film, it's with the indelible images of Leticia and Hank burned into your memory, thanks to the talents of Berry, Thornton and Forster. `Monster's Ball' is compelling, unforgettable drama, and an example of filmmaking at it's best. 10/10.
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