review by Cynthia Fuchs, 15 February 2002
the start of Monster's Ball, twelve-year-old Tyrell Musgrove
(Coronji Calhoun) visits his father on death row. Lawrence (Sean
Combs) is scheduled to die that night. Tyrell asks why.
"Because I'm a bad man," his father tells him, gazing
steadily into his son's devastated face. "I want you to know
something," Lawrence says, leaning forward. "You ain't me.
You're the best of what I am, that's what you are." Lawrence's
wife, Leticia (Halle Berry) is not impressed. She moves from the
barred window where she's been standing, trying not to see this
poignant father-son scene. As she sits next to Tyrell, her cigarette
smoke rises slowly. She just can't warm up to Lawrence, even with
her boy watching and hoping. After eleven years of visiting her man
in a cell, she's ready for an ending.
it won't come easily. Even after Lawrence's execution -- which the
film displays in aesthetically arranged detail, intercut with
Leticia brushing her teeth -- she is haunted by the memory of her
"bad" man. She's unable to move on, not least because she
sees in Tyrell, specifically, in his obesity, a lack of control that
reminds her of Lawrence, a weakness that frightens her. Working as a
waitress in rural Georgia and about to lose her house because she
can't make the rent, she deals daily with poverty, racism, and
meanness. When she comes home to find Tyrell's been sneaking
chocolate bars again, she beats him, mainly out of fear for what's
in store for him. "I know," she says later, in a moment of
regret and confusion, that if you're "a black man in America,
you can't be like that."
she knows only makes Leticia's life harder. Looking for her own
forms of escape, she drinks too much and works too hard, frets about
her boy, and eventually, falls into an unlikely relationship with
Hank (Billy Bob Thornton). At first, this plot turn looks crazy,
except that you've been following the parallel tracks of the
characters' lives, and so you know (even if they don't) that they
are meant to find one another. Slowly, though, the film develops a
strange logic for the pairing, out of mutual need, that at times
becomes horrific. Monster's Ball leans heavily on Southern
Gothic torment and metaphor (for instance, birdcage images to
suggest, you know, feelings of imprisonment), as well as bizarre,
though historically framed circumstances, reminiscent of those
conjured by Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor.
of these circumstances is "coincidental," in that way that
instructional fictions tend to be: unknown to Leticia, Hank is one
of the guards who oversaw Lawrence's execution. He's also a lifelong
racist, but as the film has it, he's not a bad man, not cruel or
disagreeable by nature, but a victim of training, by his father,
Buck (Peter Boyle), a retired death row guard. When Hank and Buck
exchange the words they do -- in their bleak living room, the close
space of the bathroom -- the air between them seems to grow thinner
by the second (this tension is finely exacerbated by Thornton and
Boyle, who flawlessly underplay their parts).
if this recipe of dysfunction isn't enough, the film -- directed by
Swiss-born Marc Forster and written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos --
folds in yet another layer, in Hank's son, Sonny (Heath Ledger). He
has also taken up the family business, but hates it like poison,
can't find in himself the strength (or hatefulness, as is visible in
Buck) to be hard. Not only does Sonny make mistakes during the trial
run (which involves the black guard on duty playing the condemned),
but also collapses on the way to the electric chair with Lawrence.
Here you glimpse of Hank's potential compassion for Lawrence, whose
last minutes of life were obviously disturbed, turned into furious
invective against his child. Throwing Sonny up against the wall,
Hank is himself out of control: "You're like a goddamn woman!
You're like your fucking mother!" That this tirade echoes
Buck's sentiment about Hank's mother (who killed herself years ago)
is hardly accidental. For Hank, as for Buck -- and Leticia, for that
matter -- vulnerability is terrifying.
parallel is obvious, neat and awful: Sonny, like Tyrell, both
reflects and repulses his parent, as well as burdened with all kinds
of meaning, from regional and familial legacies to contemporary
psychological insights. That's not to say that the sons are the
film's only symbolic devices: while Lawrence is on his way to
execution, Leticia and Ty watch a television show about skydiving,
complete with hurtling point-of-view shots; longtime smoker Buck is
currently tied to an oxygen tank; and Hank and Sonny use the same
prostitute, whom they take the same way, from behind. When Sonny
asks her to "get something to eat" with him, she smiles
ruefully, not even answering the invitation: theirs is not a
relationship involving face-to-face conversation. You can't miss it:
everyone is in some form of freefall, running out of breath and
time, incapable of intimacy or compassion, that is, weakness.
for Hank and Leticia, all these other characters are set up to
service their trajectory toward one another. Sonny, for one, models
tolerance for Hank, resisting the example of his father and
grandfather, absorbing their hatred rather than projecting it back
outward. When he befriends the two sons of a black neighbor, Ryrus
(played by hiphop artist Mos Def), Hank is appalled, chasing the
boys off with a shotgun. Predictably, however, Hank will learn a
hard lesson from Sonny. And if Hank can't articulate this lesson --
or appreciate its cost -- he does undergo a fairly miraculous change
of heart that emerges more clearly from movie conventions (the kind
that allow viewers to feel all right about themselves) than it does
from his own nasty background.
Hank's lesson comes to involve Leticia is the film's most elaborate
contrivance, allowing "catharsis," i.e., the raw and
desperate sex scene that everyone's been talking about, shot from
behind furniture and doorframes, to indicate, again, their mutual
desire for escape. Premised on tragedy (two, actually), their
liaison is about shared pain and need, more than desire, but it
eases into a tender relationship that actually makes sense, if only
the set-up for it hadn't been so overcooked. It doesn't help that
their first night together is introduced with clunkily metaphorical
dialogue: Hank and Leticia sit in his car outside her place. He
asks, "You know when you feel like you can't breathe? You can't
get up from inside yourself, really?" She nods, barely.
"Do you want to come inside?"
yet... in spite of its symbolic inelegance and familiar plot
(wherein the not-really-so-bad man is redeemed by his love for the
girl he hardly "deserves"), Monster's Ball provides
extraordinary moments for its actors. These do not include that
much-remarked sex scene, which, for all its manifest
"daring," is not nearly so effective as Berry's quieter
work with ten-year-old Calhoun, or especially, the film's final
surprising moments, when she essentially acts a scene by herself,
even though she shares the frame with Thornton. As Leticia makes a
silent deal with herself in order, at last, to move on, her story
comes into focus. And in the end, it is more compelling than those
of the various bad men who have made it so difficult.
Billy Bob Thornton
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult