Published Dec 01, 2001For a film chock full of horrendous acts and brutalised characters, Monster's Ball is remarkably understated. At first the film seems to be striving for an unrelenting bleakness as it introduces a series of loosely connected characters who are all completely mired in their incredibly awful existences with seemingly no hope for reprieve. Set in the rural Southern U.S., the film focuses on two very different families. One has three generations of Grotowski men (Peter Boyle, Billy Bob Thornton, Heath Ledger) who all worked or are working as death row guards at a nearby prison and are struggling with the familial legacy of bitter misery, emotional repression, and ingrained racism. The other has a poverty-stricken single mother (Halle Berry) and her obese son (Coronji Calhoun) awaiting the execution of the boy's inmate father (Sean "P. Diddy" Combs). Strangely, almost all of the inevitable tragic events that you suspect will transpire between the characters happen within the first half hour or so, and where it goes from there, or at least how it gets there, comes as a bit of a surprise.
Though it's hardly the feel good movie of the year, the film does shift gears to focus on Hank (Thornton) and Leticia (Berry) as they seek to fill their considerable emotional voids and grope their way towards some kind of redemption. Linked on many levels by loss and trauma, Hank and Leticia begin to find a strange comfort in one another's presence and begin to navigate a bizarre relationship against all odds. The script, though it features some well-worn themes that it doesn't exactly shed new light upon, is blessed with an underwritten dialogue style and a knack for portraying honestly moments of naked brutality. Sometimes Marc Forster's direction feels out of sync with this barren script, calling attention to itself with trickery when it should be observing unobtrusively. Much of the success of Monster's Ball belongs to the actors, who embrace the script's reserved style and deliver excellent performances across the board. Thornton, always a master of understatement, makes Hank's transition from brutality to tenderness touching and even comic at times. Berry's Leticia, the only character whose emotional distress is allowed to surface, is fierce and raw. Peter Boyle's performance as the aging Grotowski patriarch is perfect in it's unexpected evil, and even Sean Combs manages to be graceful and haunting as the condemned man.