Wednesday 7 October 2015

Movie Review: Monster's Ball (2001)

A somber drama, Monster's Ball is the story of two damaged people connecting under a dark cloud of grief. The film resonates with the raw power of human emotions reaching for the warmth of companionship to overcome unspeakable anguish.

In Georgia, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) are both prison guards at the local penitentiary. They live with Hank's father Buck (Peter Boyle), a loudmouthed racist and himself a retired prison guard. Hank is a widower and has inherited his dad's racist tendencies.

Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) is a black death row prisoner about to be executed, with Hank and Sonny charged with overseeing his capital punishment by electric chair. Lawrence leaves behind his wife Leticia (Halle Berry) and obese son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun). Sonny does not handle the execution well, unleashing Hank's wrath. Meanwhile, Leticia is penniless, and about to lose her house, her car and her job. Tragedies strike both Hank and Leticia, and a chance encounter brings them together for an unlikely relationship.

A compact two character study, Monster's Ball delves into the soul-shaking impact of loss on the psyche. Directed by Marc Forster with a measured pace and an eye for detail, the film refuses to take any easy short cuts. Neither Hank nor Leticia are necessarily likeable characters, and the calamities that befall them are shocking. Both of them rightfully hold themselves at least partially responsible for their losses, and the film distinguishes itself by staring at gaping, self-inflicted emotional wounds.

The film invests heavily in both characters to set the individual contexts. Hank and Leticia start their relationship approximately halfway through the film, and by then, both have been rounded into genuine people, products of their environment and their choices. The parallels between their independent lives are compelling. Hank abuses Sonny because he believes him to be weak; Letitia berates Tyrell for being overweight. Hank is already a widower; Leticia becomes one, with Hank an active participant in Lawrence's state-sanctioned demise. And as much as fate has a hand in the losses that they will experience, the spectre of personal responsibility hovers over both.

When they finally meet and engage, Foster charts a relationship course that is at once fragile and intense. The fierce intimacy between Hank and Leticia is more about physical release than mutual tenderness. They tentatively get to know each other while already relying on the relationship, Hank shocking himself by starting to care about a black person while discharging himself from the vestiges of his old life. Meanwhile, Leticia wonders if his financial, physical and moral support will actually help heal her anguish and guilt.

The film is fully dependent on the two central performances, and both Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry deliver. Thornton stays well within himself, portraying Hank as a man's man, his father's son, more influenced by the despicable attitudes of the old man than he cares to show or acknowledge. Berry became the first black woman to win the Best Actress Academy Award. She keeps Leticia real, human and impressively pragmatic.

The film ends with Leticia facing yet another unwanted surprise, and another potentially life-altering decision point. Again Monster's Ball quietly chooses the more difficult road, Leticia representing real people forced to make wrenching trade-offs just to be able to shake hands with life.

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