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
A harrowing, daring film. One of the year's best. **** (out of four)
MONSTER'S BALL / (2001) **** (out of four)
When I finish reading a great book, I don't close it right away. Treasuring the story's emotional grasp, I just sit there and hold it for a minute, enthralled, sensing the character's lives are continuing even as I put the book away.
"Monster's Ball" is a similar experience. The film contains so much truth, vigor, and so many harrowing moments, I just stared at the screen through the ending credits. Even after a second viewing the conviction did not diminish. It really says something about a movie when you know what happens and you're equally as mesmerized every time you watch it.
Most movies about depravity are really about entertainment, but director Marc Forster avoids preachy speeches, big sappy moments, and melodramatic music. Even during the movie's most important scenes, Forster does not overplay the material. He knows that careful, quiet dialogue, and long, silent pauses speak louder than lengthy emotional summaries.
Consider a scene where a character checks his father into an old folk's home. It does not feature long good-byes or conclusive hugs. Instead, it projects unflinching, raw emotion. "You must love him very much," reassures an attendant to the character who replies, "No I don't, but he is my father "
The character, Hank, is played by Billy Bob Thornton, who makes his Academy Award-winning performance in "Sling Blade" look like SNL material. Hank, bitter and racist, lives in a Southern country house with his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), and father (Peter Boyle).
Hank and Sonny work as prison guards on death row. Sonny desperately wants out of the family business, especially after an unpleasant emotional reaction to the latest execution. When Hank explodes at him for his mistake, Sonny teaches his father a lesson he will never forget.
The film eventually becomes a story about the relationship between Hank and the widow of the man he has just executed. She's played by Halle Barry, who was paid an extra one-million dollars for doing an extended sex scene completely nude. This is a gradual, yet sudden relationship that is not based on physical attraction or love, but emotional need and depravity.
Forster makes interesting editing choices. During certain scenes, he cuts back and forth between separate occurrences while the central action fills the soundtrack. Especially unique is how he handles a sex scene. While two characters engage in some of the most graphic stimulated sex of last year, Forster flashes images of a caged bird before us. A metaphor of shattered innocence or repressed emotion, perhaps?
Actually, Forster fills "Monster's Ball" with metaphors, including the title itself. He even includes a moving soundtrack of timid rhythms and sudden beats, symbolizing the characters complex states of mind. Forster's haunting, daring feature reminds us why we all love the movies.
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