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Anyone whos thinking about going to see Monsters Ball might consider taking a psychic
along, because only a mind-reader will be able to divine whats going on inside the
head of its main character. Marc Forsters story about a prison guards effort
to redeem his degenerate bloodline suffers from a lot of holes, any one of which is large
enough to be fatal, but its central problem is the miraculous conversion that lies at the
heart of the picture. Its an Oprah-mistic movie in which people overcome a
lifetimes worth of bad habits by the mere act of opening up.
Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) embodies all the worst aspects of Americas Deep South: hes a racist whose regimented exterior scarcely contains a volcanic temper, and who carries deeply-held grudges that feel handed down through generations. He works as a guard on the state prisons Death Row, in the same position that his retired father Buck (Peter Boyle) once held; now, Hank is teaching the ropes to his own son, the feckless Sonny (Heath Ledger). Father, son, and grandson share the same house, but its the phlegmatically bigoted Buck who sets the tone for all three lives. Hank has long since adopted his fathers virulence, but Sonny isnt cut out for life as a prison guard, and he seems to have issued from a different gene-pool altogether. When his sensitivity catches up to him at the end of a monsters ballDeath Row slang for a condemned mans last night on earthHank vents on him a lifetimes worth of disappointment. When the smoke clears, Sonny lies dead and Hank must navigate a new course for his radically changed life.
This is when Monsters Ball switches gears from a moderately intriguing Southern Gothic tale into a self-improvement seminar. In the immediate aftermath of Sonnys death, Hank seems even more emotionally frozen by whats transpired. All I want to hear is that dirt hittin that box, he bluntly tells the preacher at Sonnys funeral, and when he returns home he padlocks the door to Sonnys bedroom as if to lock away his memory. When Hank suddenly resigns from the prison, he seems ready to withdraw even further into himself, but it soon becomes apparent that the ice-floe inside him is actually shifting, breaking up. His manner assumes a new lightness and opennesswe know hes coming around when his hair takes on Kevin Costners tousled blow-dried look. More obviously, he begins to take notice of Leticia (Halle Berry), the gorgeous but downtrodden black woman who pours coffee at the local diner. When Leticias 10-year old son is borne away in yet another violent fluke, she and Hank soon realize they can pick up the pieces of their lives more easily together than they can apart. Things become complicated, though, when Hank learns that Leticia was married to the prisoner whose execution precipitated the quarrel with Sonnyits a crisis of trust for two people who have made distrust a way of life.
Monsters Balls greatest virtue is the quiet, unhurried view it gives us of its characters and their daily lives. The only problem is that these lives cant bear such scrutiny without being exposed as a lot of wishful thinking on the part of its creators. An air of unreality hangs over Monsters Ball, beginning with its setting in the mythical Deep South so beloved by Hollywood, the one where men drawl out jokes about sekshul har-race-ment and cars spew out exhaust-clouds large enough to envelop the Super Dome. The movie plunges into emotionally charged situationssuch as the condemned mans farewell to Leticia and their young sonwithout providing the information needed to make sense out of them. (If Leticia has stood by him for 11 years, why does she wait until the hours before his execution to rake him over the coals?) Nor does it help that Forster tries to putty the scripts cracks with a series of off-putting touches, ranging from the promiscuous intercutting between Hanks and Leticias lives to the gratingly arty views during their first sexual encounter. At its worst, the movie has the mechanical quality of a bad romantic comedy: twice Leticia extends the proceedings by assuming the worst about Hanks motives, when in both cases a simple talk would clear things up.
But we dont understand a lot of things in this movie, including why Hank never sits Leticia down to tell her that he was the man that escorted her husband during the Last Mile. (And if it is such a secret, why does he keep evidence of the fact around for her to stumble across at the worst possible moment?) Worst of all, we never understand what it is that brings on Hanks cracker-to-candy conversion, the event that whole film turns on. Its just as hard to acceptand even harder to admirethe idea that Hank is pitching woo after Sonny is barely cold in the ground, but this is a man who has no problems getting through lifes sticky wickets, including a despoiled pedigree. Peter Boyles Buck is a monster as seen at a distance; our first view of him reveals everything about him that were ever going to see. Instead of the true settling of accounts between father and son that their relationship cries out for, Hank deals with the old man using an out-of-sight-out-of-mind solution that has no application in our world, the one where real monsters dwell.
Billy Bob Thornton was aces in The Man Who Wasnt There, and he does almost as well playing The Two Faces of Hank. Halle Berry, on the other hand, would do just as well to deny that this movie ever existedher Leticia Musgrove is simply wrong in every detail. Its not entirely her fault; the filmmakers mightve guessed the glamorous Berry wouldnt be convincing as a dirt-poor woman whos been ground down by oppression and bad luck. (Even in a waitress uniform she looks ready to rock the town.) But Berry has no feeling for the common gesture, and even less for Southern speech. In an overdone scene where Leticia dresses down her son, Berry calls him boy in a Heinz variety of accentsI know I heard a boa in there, and I think I even heard a buoy. Berrys performance sums up a movie whose out of touch ways undercut its good intentions.
- Tom Block