Anyone who’s thinking about going to see Monster’s Ball might consider taking a psychic along, because only a mind-reader will be able to divine what’s going on inside the head of its main character. Marc Forster’s story about a prison guard’s effort to redeem his degenerate bloodline suffers from a lot of holes, any one of which is large enough to be fatal, but its central problem is the miraculous conversion that lies at the heart of the picture. It’s an Oprah-mistic movie in which people overcome a lifetime’s worth of bad habits by the mere act of “opening up.”
Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) embodies all the worst aspects of America’s Deep South: he’s a racist whose regimented exterior scarcely contains a volcanic temper, and who carries deeply-held grudges that feel handed down through generations. He works as a guard on the state prison’s Death Row, in the same position that his retired father Buck (Peter Boyle) once held; now, Hank is teaching the ropes to his own son, the feckless Sonny (Heath Ledger). Father, son, and grandson share the same house, but it’s the phlegmatically bigoted Buck who sets the tone for all three lives. Hank has long since adopted his father’s virulence, but Sonny isn’t cut out for life as a prison guard, and he seems to have issued from a different gene-pool altogether. When his sensitivity catches up to him at the end of a “monster’s ball”—Death Row slang for a condemned man’s last night on earth—Hank vents on him a lifetime’s worth of disappointment. When the smoke clears, Sonny lies dead and Hank must navigate a new course for his radically changed life.
This is when Monster’s Ball switches gears from a moderately intriguing Southern Gothic tale into a self-improvement seminar. In the immediate aftermath of Sonny’s death, Hank seems even more emotionally frozen by what’s transpired. “All I want to hear is that dirt hittin’ that box,” he bluntly tells the preacher at Sonny’s funeral, and when he returns home he padlocks the door to Sonny’s bedroom as if to lock away his memory. When Hank suddenly resigns from the prison, he seems ready to withdraw even further into himself, but it soon becomes apparent that the ice-floe inside him is actually shifting, breaking up. His manner assumes a new lightness and openness—we know he’s coming around when his hair takes on Kevin Costner’s tousled blow-dried look. More obviously, he begins to take notice of Leticia (Halle Berry), the gorgeous but downtrodden black woman who pours coffee at the local diner. When Leticia’s 10-year old son is borne away in yet another violent fluke, she and Hank soon realize they can pick up the pieces of their lives more easily together than they can apart. Things become complicated, though, when Hank learns that Leticia was married to the prisoner whose execution precipitated the quarrel with Sonny—it’s a crisis of trust for two people who have made distrust a way of life.
Monster’s Ball’s greatest virtue is the quiet, unhurried view it gives us of its characters and their daily lives. The only problem is that these lives can’t bear such scrutiny without being exposed as a lot of wishful thinking on the part of its creators. An air of unreality hangs over Monster’s Ball, beginning with its setting in the mythical Deep South so beloved by Hollywood, the one where men drawl out jokes about “sekshul har-race-ment” and cars spew out exhaust-clouds large enough to envelop the Super Dome. The movie plunges into emotionally charged situations—such as the condemned man’s farewell to Leticia and their young son—without providing the information needed to make sense out of them. (If Leticia has stood by him for 11 years, why does she wait until the hours before his execution to rake him over the coals?) Nor does it help that Forster tries to putty the script’s cracks with a series of off-putting touches, ranging from the promiscuous intercutting between Hank’s and Leticia’s lives to the gratingly arty views during their first sexual encounter. At its worst, the movie has the mechanical quality of a bad romantic comedy: twice Leticia extends the proceedings by assuming the worst about Hank’s motives, when in both cases a simple talk would clear things up.
But we don’t understand a lot of things in this movie, including why Hank never sits Leticia down to tell her that he was the man that escorted her husband during the Last Mile. (And if it is such a secret, why does he keep evidence of the fact around for her to stumble across at the worst possible moment?) Worst of all, we never understand what it is that brings on Hank’s cracker-to-candy conversion, the event that whole film turns on. It’s just as hard to accept—and even harder to admire—the idea that Hank is pitching woo after Sonny is barely cold in the ground, but this is a man who has no problems getting through life’s sticky wickets, including a despoiled pedigree. Peter Boyle’s Buck is a monster as seen at a distance; our first view of him reveals everything about him that we’re ever going to see. Instead of the true settling of accounts between father and son that their relationship cries out for, Hank deals with the old man using an out-of-sight-out-of-mind solution that has no application in our world, the one where real monsters dwell.
Billy Bob Thornton was aces in The Man Who Wasn’t There, and he does almost as well playing The Two Faces of Hank. Halle Berry, on the other hand, would do just as well to deny that this movie ever existed—her Leticia Musgrove is simply wrong in every detail. It’s not entirely her fault; the filmmakers might’ve guessed the glamorous Berry wouldn’t be convincing as a dirt-poor woman who’s been ground down by oppression and bad luck. (Even in a waitress uniform she looks ready to rock the town.) But Berry has no feeling for the common gesture, and even less for Southern speech. In an overdone scene where Leticia dresses down her son, Berry calls him “boy” in a Heinz variety of accents—I know I heard a “boa” in there, and I think I even heard a “buoy.” Berry’s performance sums up a movie whose out of touch ways undercut its good intentions.
– Tom Block