Monster's Ball

on December 26, 2001 by Bridget Byrne
   Like what happens to Billy Bob Thornton's Hank and Halle Berry's Leticia, this film is a relief. It isn't perfect, it isn't a cure or a complete success and problems still exist, but watching it at least puts you on the path to feeling better about movies, just as getting together helps this unlikely couple.

   All types of theses could be written about the sad state of a world that creates the woes inflicted upon these people and how their coupling won't solve any of them, but this movie has the merit of any good story in that it touches the specific even more strongly than the universal. And this is an interesting tale: well-told, sad and funny and ultimately uplifting without ever having to resort to any of the Hallmark card type of pat resolutions mainstream Hollywood so often superimposes on stories about redemption. Happy-ever-after can't be guaranteed, but immediate need can be enjoyed even amid the legacy of sorrow. The director and screenwriters don't pussyfoot around the interracial theme or the depiction of what the death penalty really means.

   Thornton plays a Department of Corrections officer who, as his father did before him and as his son does alongside him, readies Death Row inmates for the electric chair. He seems born and bred to stay firmly locked in his hard, narrow, unhappy life. But who he is turns out not to be innate--rather an ugly carapace thrust over him by example and circumstance. When his life couldn't seem to get more horrible, he breaks out, suddenly aware of the need, indeed the right, to try to get what he really feels inside out into the open.

   Thornton has a great deal of fun with the awkwardness of the man, attractive despite himself, as he tries to woo Leticia, a woman also blighted by tragedy and prejudice. They are coming from very different directions, but they keep coming, as the film's vivid sexual encounters make explicitly clear.

   Just occasionally you glimpse the actor in the film's stars, as though they can't quite contain themselves over the delicious and daring stuff the script asks them to pull off, but overall they are convincing. Forster's off-kilter direction adds to the surprise elements, very aware as he is that exposition is not necessary--that even at their most intimate, in their moments of greatest outreach, the isolation within the characters must be apparent.

   Berry is effortlessly beautiful as Letitia, and why not? That doesn't mean she can't ring true as this downtrodden waitress, angry and despairing and so in need of love. Peter Boyle and Heath Ledger, as Hank's dyed-in-bigotry father and his forlorn son, the symbolic bookends he mustn't allow himself to become, stuff their screen time full throttle with all that's needed. Sean Combs, as the Death Row victim, who provides the link between Hank and Letitia--though not the coincidence of their meeting--has a little less to offer, but still comes up with a few good moments that suggest the dimension of an individual man, rather than a mere catalyst for the plot. Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger and Sean Combs. Directed by Marc Foster. Written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos. Produced by Lee Daniels. A Lions Gate release. Drama. Rated R for strong sexual content, language and violence. Running time: 108 min

Tags: Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger and Sean Combs. Directed by Marc Foster, Written by Milo Addica, Will Rokos, Produced by Lee Daniels, Lions Gate, Drama

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