Monster's Ball Review
Oh the irony! Out of all the films nominated for this year's Academy Awards, the film that took the longest to be released to the mainstream in the UK, Monster's Ball, is surprisingly the best of the whole bunch. Forget the sanitised schmaltz that was A Beautiful Mind or the head-doing indulgence of Moulin Rouge, Monster's Ball is a modern day masterpiece of many layers. The film garnered publicity because its star Halle Berry became the first black actress to scoop the Best Actress Oscar, and if you see this film just for that performance, be prepared to take home much more from Monster's Ball than you thought you would.
Billy Bob Thornton stars as Hank Grotowski, a racist policeman in charge of overseeing a state execution in the Deep South. Hank lives at home with his father Buck (Peter Boyle) and son Sonny (Heath Ledger), and has severely strained relationships with both of them. Leticia (Halle Berry), the wife of the man whose execution Hank is overseeing, is a struggling black woman fighting to make ends meet. Despite his own moral outlook on life, Hank's destiny will intertwine with Leticia's, sucking them up into a force neither will be able to control.
The beauty of Monster's Ball is the unexpected turns the plot takes without ever pandering to 'twist' devices or melodrama. Here is a film that shows us sequences that have a proper purpose and characters that burn themselves into the audience's conscience; staying there long after the film has finished. Never before has a film contained so much pain and yet so much redemption, without losing its fluidity or appearing disjointed. The performances, in particular Thornton and Berry, are world-class, and it's no wonder Berry topped Kidman and Spacek at the Oscars considering the way she bares her soul so ferociously in the film. Even the graphic sex-scenes between the two are painful, as if every sexual thrust represents a knife-wound to the heart. However, Monster's Ball is not always painful in its approach, and the film successfully leaves a pleasant taste in your mouth even if it isn't especially sweet.
Billy Bob Thornton's character Hank is so repugnant by the half way mark of the film that it's hard for the audience to ever believe they will come to like this creation. However, the director Marc Forster so swiftly handles Hank's personality transition from bad guy to good guy that you almost feel love towards Hank on the film's conclusion. It appears that Forster knows how to extract tremendous performances from his major players, and even Sean Combs (yes P. Diddy) turns in a remarkable performance as Lawrence Musgrove, Leticia's execution-awaiting husband.
Monster's Ball is rich with symbolism, and clearly wishes to convey many messages to its audience. Obviously, the story of an interracial relationship, particularly by a man who starts the film despising blacks, is going to spark the most tongues wagging, but the film seems more intent to analyse the role of the father figure. It's as if three experiments are taking place in the film, and three father-son relationships are being tested, each with different situations and test conditions. The results are surprisingly ambiguous, but sadly would ruin the plot if revealed here.
It's splendid that such a perfectly scripted, acted and directed film can also be a triumph of production values, and Monster's Ball exhibits a bleak exterior channelled through Roberto Schaefer's stark cinematography and Asche and Spencer's intense and alienating score.
Monster's Ball is adult drama at its very best, and is hard to fault. It's powerful with its delivery and it transports its audience to places they never expect to go. How this film didn't even receive a nomination for Best Picture at this year's Oscars, let alone win it, is anyone's guess.