Monday, December 24, 2001

Monster's Ball / ***1/2 (2001)

The title of "Monster's Ball" pertains to the last preparations made for a prison inmate as he takes his last journey down death row. The final party, as it is commonly referred to in the movie, consists of the last meal, final farewells, last-minute phone calls, words of wisdom and the like, all arranged and carried out by the prison guards in a concise but almost celebratory manner. Corrections officer Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), who oversees the Monster's Ball of an inmate towards the beginning of the picture, believes every element leading towards the man's impending death should be perfectly executed; according to him, it's the only appropriate kind of sendoff. But when his own officer son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), becomes nauseous during the final walk and collapses onto the floor, Hank is totally outraged and becomes violent, so much so that eventually, other officers have to intervene and hold the tempered father back. Pulling away from the final walk like that, we gather, disrupted Lawrence's deserving sendoff.

Don't think that the above description a summary of the movie's plot, however. "Monster's Ball" isn't about prison, or inmates, or guards, or even their relationships with one another. It's about survival, coping with our losses and moving on from personal tragedies no matter how intense they may be. The prison situation that opens the film is merely a fundamental, serving as the booster step for the events to follow. In the story, Hank is a quiet, single, plain middle-aged man with a job as the head corrections officer at a local state penitentiary. At home he cares for his old and ailing bigot father Buck (Peter Boyle), and has a son named Sonny who works with him at the prison. All three men live under one roof, and yet mentally they couldn't be farther apart from one another. Buck is detached and blind to everything in regards to his own son, while Hank looks at his own with disgust and regret. At one crucial point of the film, Sonny asks his father with worry, "do you really hate me?" Of course you know what the reply is.

Meanwhile, a parallel story sets itself up. In this one, we have Leticia (Halle Berry) and her son Tyrell, the immediate family of death row inmate Lawrence Musgrove (Sean "P. Diddy" Combs). This household unit is no different than that of the Grotowskis; Leticia, being the only support in the world for her drastically overweight son, works long days and nights at a local diner, verbally abuses her son when she catches him sneaking chocolate, and has essentially given up caring about her own prison-bound husband. "I've been coming here for 11 years," she tells him. "I'm tired."

Both stories are linked by a single thread, and as they gradually deteriorate for the main characters—Hank and Leticia—their paths directly cross one another, leading both of them into a friendship built around their own troubles and losses. What results of it? The indigence to help one another out and, eventually, to rediscover their own lost identities.

As a narrative, the movie is an incredibly depressing one, saturated with so much individual deprivation and loss that there is a point when we don't even feel like watching anymore. But as a character study, the movie works remarkably well, in part because the script builds these personalities to a realistic degree, and also because the film draws spectacular performances from all its major stars. Thornton makes his role as Hank the most honest, challenging and deep of his three major castings in 2001, outshining even the subtle intricacies of his persona in "The Man Who Wasn't There" and the bizarrely amusing attitude of his "Bandits" character. Halle Berry, meanwhile, outshines every one of her previous acting endeavors, providing us with a performance so emotionally groundbreaking and thought-provoking that it would be an utter calamity if she were not nominated for an Academy Award.

What is to be said for the movie as a whole, though? Nothing, other than that it's very difficult on your emotions. Director Marc Forster takes a very subdued but saddening approach to this material, and though his screenplay can't be credited with breaking any new ground or utilizing thorough storytelling, it should be praised for its immense and powerful look at characters who manifest their internal suffering. "Monster's Ball" provides the humanity missing from so many films this year, and though it fails to be a marvelous achievement, it does manage to be one of the year's most effective movies.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama (US); 2001; Rated R; 111 Minutes

Billy Bob Thornton
Hank Grotowski
Halle Berry
Leticia Musgrove
Heath Ledger
Sonny Grotowski
Peter Boyle
Buck Grotowski
Sean Combs
Lawrence Musgrove
Coronji Calhoun
Tyrell Musgrove

Produced by Milo Addica, Michael Burns, Lee Daniels, Eric Kopeloff, Tom Ortenberg, Michael Paseornek, Will Rokos and Mark Urman; Directed by Marc Forster; Screenwritten by Milo Addica and Will Rokos

No comments: