Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Monster's Ball

Back From the Dead

by Rusty White
Director: Marc Forster
Starring: Billy Bob Thorton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Sean Combs
Length: 1 hour 51 minutes
Rated: R
Rating: 3 & 1/2 STARS

About 25 minutes into "Monster's Ball" an event happens that so shocked me, I had a difficult time watching the rest of the movie. "Monster's Ball" is a dark character study of dead people. A tale of life and death and of emotional death and rebirth. Milo Addica and Will Rokos wrote a story that is relentless and harrowing and ultimately life affirming. I haven't been as emotionally affected by an American film in many years as much as I was by "Monster's Ball."

Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thorton) is a second generation corrections officer at the Louisiana State Prison. He works death row along with his son Sonny (Heath Ledger). The patriarch of the clan is Buck (Peter Boyle). These three men live in a world without women. Buck is disabled. His day is spent watching TV, complaining about Blacks and cutting out execution stories from the newspaper. Hank is the dutiful son who wastes no time chasing Black children off of the property with a shotgun in order to please his dad. His only female contact takes place with prostitutes. He hates life, he hates his dad and he really hates his son. Sonny is a reminder of the wife who left him. Hank ridicules Sonny by comparing him to his mother, just as Buck ridicules Hank in the same manner. Sonny is about to become a man in his father's eyes because he is about to take part in his first execution.

Lawrence Musgrove (Sean "P Diddy" Combs) is awaiting execution in the Louisiana electric chair. He receives a visit from his long-suffering wife Leticia (Halle Berry) and his obese 11 year old son, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun). Lawrence tells Tyrell he won't see him anymore after today. He tells his son that he is a "bad man" but that Tyrell is not him. Tyrell is all that was good in Lawrence. Lawrence seeks comfort from his wife. She pulls away from him and says that the only reason she came was to let him see his son. Lawrence has been on death row for 11 years and the slow drag has killed Leticia's soul. Lawrence apologizes for all the times he has hurt her. Visitation is over and it is time for the Monster's Ball.

Hank explains to Sonny that the "party" given the condemned man his last night is called the Monster's Ball. Lawrence has no visitors or priests. It will be the condemned man, Hank and Sonny. When the time comes for the execution, Lawrence is marched into the death house by his guards. Sonny is overcome by the thought of taking part in the execution. Sonny falls down and vomits. After the execution Hank attacks his son. Other guards pull him off. The next morning, Hank wakes Sonny and tells him to get out of the house. He again attacks Sonny, but Sonny has gun. Events transpire which will cause the hard-hearted Hank to reassess his life and try to live again. He is on a collision course with Leticia.

Leticia returns to the small apartment she shares with her son to wait out the execution. She sneaks drags off of a Jack Daniels bottle while her son sneaks candy bars. The drunken Leticia beats her son without mercy when she finds him eating the candy. It is a difficult scene to watch, but not the most heart wrenching scene in this powerful movie. Leticia's car has died. She must walk with her son to and from work. It is a rainy night as her shift ends. She leads Tyrell out of the diner where she works and into the dark night. Events transpire which will cause Leticia to reassess her life. She is about to meet Hank as a person. The rest is for you to discover.

"Monster's Ball" examines the darkest of human emotions. It does so in painfully honest and human terms. This is an actor's movie. The performances are all first rate. Halle Berry's Oscar nomination is well deserved. She has never shown this range and depth before. Why Billy Bob Thorton was not also nominated is a mystery. Both lead characters start out as the walking dead. They seek solace in alcohol or violence. They can't feel. The walls are built so high around these folks that they can no longer see the sun. Watching each of these talented actors tear down their character's walls to let in the light is a wonderful viewing experience. Much has been made of the film's sex scene. It is graphic and very erotic. As in the great horror film "Don't Look Now" the sex scene is used to show the healing power of another human's touch. "Monster's Ball" is ultimately life affirming and redemptive in nature. The journey to redemption is as harrowing as any you will ever see on the screen.

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