Directed by: Marc Forster
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Heath Ledger, Halle Berry, Sean Combs, Peter Boyle
Intense in a way that In the Bedroom only wishes it was, Marc Forster's Monster's Ball (the title taken from an old English term for a condemned man's last night) is far and away the most powerful movie in town right now -- and very likely the best. The simplistic assessment of the movie as the romance between a racist prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) and the widow (Halle Berry) of a man he executed (Sean Combs) comes nowhere near doing this incredible and incredibly complex film justice. That is the plot -- or at least part of the plot -- but such a synopsis scarcely touches on the theme of the film or its richly textured, finely integrated symbolism. The movie starts out with the most harrowing depiction of an execution I have ever seen on film -- carefully following the procedures and the death watch on the condemned man with ever-mounting horrific detail. The film is very careful not to over-sentimentalize condemned cop-killer Lawrence Musgrove (Combs), who freely admits that he's a "bad man," but nonetheless manages to imbue his character with genuine humanity and a sense of complexity. In this way, the film's message is actually made far more powerful, because -- for all his being a "bad man" -- it's hard not to end up questioning the whole process. Is anyone bad enough to be subjected -- especially in this cool, methodical, ritualistic manner -- to what we see depicted here? Director Forster takes this a step further by showing the condemned man in the electric chair reflected in the glass separating him from the spectators' gallery, so that he appears to be sitting there with the spectators, raising yet another question: Are we not in some way killing something of ourselves when we execute another human being? This, however, is again only a part of what is going on in Monster's Ball -- and only one of the film's myriad uses of reflections, both literal and figurative. Nearly every character in the film is in some way a reflection of the other characters, all of whom are being crushed under the weight of a sickness of the spirit, but only some of whom will ever realize the insanity that permeates their lives. Long before their paths actually cross, Hank Grotowski (Thornton) and Leticia Musgrove (Berry) are symbolically connected -- both have violent attitudes toward the perceived "shortcomings" of their respective children and both tend to lay much of the blame for those "failings" on the children's other parent. It's impossible to discuss many of the aspects of the film without giving away too much of the film's storyline, and while the plot is ultimately the least important aspect of Monster's Ball, much of the film's intensity is derived from events in the film and I'm not about to take away from that intensity by revealing too much here. The first hour of the film is almost unbearable in the succession of tragic -- and often unnecessary -- events, and the cumulative effect is like being hit by a truck. The second part of the film is nearly as powerful in a different way, since it traces the awakenings of both Hank and Leticia as the human beings they always might have been -- or at least it offers them the chance of becoming those persons. Unlike all too many films that set out to address heavy issues, Monster's Ball isn't afraid to be warm and human and funny when the occasion requires. It's shattering early in the film when Hank admits to his son (Heath Ledger) that he hates him, but this is deftly turned around as wry comedy when Hank puts his hateful father (Peter Boyle) into a nursing home and the admitting nurse comments, "You must really love your father," only to be told something quite different. Moreover, the film isn't afraid to end on something other than a downbeat note -- a rarity in "problem" pictures and a very welcome change of pace. Beautifully acted by a perfect cast (Thornton, Berry, Ledger and Combs could not be better) and stylishly directed by Forster, Monster's Ball is truly great filmmaking that shouldn't be missed.