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Love and Death

Monster's Ball Takes Its Characters Into Hell

I'll Be Missing You: Heath Ledger (left) and Billy Bob Thornton (right) take Sean Combs to meet his maker.

By Ian Grey | Posted

You know you've hit one of the more esoteric aspects of criticism when a film's biggest flaw is the presence of a very naked Halle Berry having sex for minutes on end. More on that later.

Occasional odd glitches aside, Monster's Ball addresses themes similar to those of the overrated In the Bedroom with far greater tact and insight. One might even be tempted to suggest that Bedroom has gotten all the ink and awards because it limns its class and mortality issues from the privileged point of view of upscale white folk, while Ball has the temerity to ask its audience to identify with undereducated rednecks and poverty-stricken blacks.

As written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos and directed by Marc Forster, Monster's Ball works according to an unusually front-end-heavy structure; in order to talk about it, one has to give away several right-off-the-bat shocks. If you want the impact of those shocks preserved, simply go see the film straight away. You won't be sorry.

In a one-stop town in Georgia, a man convicted of murder, Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs), awaits the electric chair. Supervising the execution is taciturn penitentiary guard Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) and his moderately less-wretched son/fellow guard Sonny (Heath Ledger, convincingly grunged up), both of whom live with Hank's hateful, ailing racist father, Buck (Peter Boyle.)

Hank's had it up to here with everything--the vicious racist spew that passes for chat with his dad, his death-centric job, and, most tragically, Sonny. The best part of his day is eating chocolate ice cream ("with a plastic spoon, please") at the burger joint where harried Leticia (Berry) works. Leticia has a kid named Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun) and is married to Musgrove.

All hell breaks loose fast. Sonny freaks out just before he and Hank pull the switch on Musgrove. Hank nearly beats the crap out of Sonny for ruining the dignity of Musgrove's last mile. Sonny reacts by killing himself with Hank's gun.

After the service, Hank drives through the rain to find Leticia screaming in the middle of the road, Tyrell's car-crash-bloodied body next to her. He takes them to a hospital, the kid dies, he takes Leticia home and--hell, "Southern gothic" barely covers it. The rest of Ball is about coming to terms with the unendurable, with either taking action or backsliding into unspecified hells worse than anything yet suffered.

What's remarkable about the film is Forster's aversion to pat answers and willingness to let things develop organically after his histrionic overture. He has an eye for the minutia of distressed behavior and the economics of grief. Unlike In the Bedroom, there's no action-packed "solution"--there's only the slow grind of process, its quiet gratifications, and the implication of qualified hope.

Monster's Ball compresses several cineplex tickets' worth of events and emotions into its truncated time frame. The downside of this compression manifests itself in Forster's occasional missteps in his handling of Leticia. Berry is terrific, shading her character in alternating colors of rage and loss. But amid the film's relentless visual dross, her undeniable beauty--and the way her director at times films that beauty--can be jarring.

After a funny/scary respite courtesy a bottle of Jack Daniel's, Berry and Thornton engage in the aforementioned, already infamous desperation-sex scene. Too much attention is spent on Berry's charms; the scene goes on too long, making a lecture of the idea of fleshy absolution, and it's sometimes shot disconcertingly like '70s soft-core, with the camera hiding behind furniture like a peeper. It's a minor miscalculation, but it jars with the awfulness preceding it and the bad things coming.

With the informed somnambulism of his turn in The Man Who Wasn't There and this personification of traumatic-stress disorder, Thornton is rapidly becoming the master of emotional paralysis. But this shut-down man is far different than the emotional zero he portrayed in Man. Hank is an average guy with an above-average understanding of having spent most of his life's energies stuffing down hate for his father, his circumstances, and himself. To his credit, Thornton never indulges in a Big Meltdown Moment. Instead he visibly enacts an inner retreat, suggesting a guy who will be leaking pain in small poison streams for the rest of his life. The precision and craft of his work is stunning.

Sean Combs has been stiff and rote in prior roles; he could have just simmered his doomed-prisoner turn into a cheap hip-hop Christ-substitute. Instead, and with not much more than a collection of shrugs, glances, and sad requests, he conveys an almost unwatchable self-awareness and decency. He's a personification for the raw deals Hank and Leticia can make even worse--or perhaps, if they pay close attention, transcend.

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