If not entirely perfect or dramatically sound, Marc Forster's "Monster's Ball" (IMDb listing) is easily the most surprising and humane film of 2001. Kind of a "Dead Man Walking" meets "Jungle Fever," "Ball" is that infrequent film that serves as a potent reminder just how unexpected cinema can still be.
Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) is a thickly southern corrections officer living in Georgia with his racist and dying father Buck (Peter Boyle), and his spineless offspring/co-worker Sonny (Heath Ledger). Overseeing the final days of a convicted criminal sentenced to death (Sean "Puffy" Combs), Hank is forced to deal with Sonny's inability to carry out his job, and the effect Buck's racism has on Hank's judgment. Through an ugly coincidence, Hank meets Leticia (Halle Berry), a poor African-American mother who just so happens to be the less-than-grieving widow of the convict. Hank and Leticia take up a tentative romance, which in turn changes Leticia's fortunes and Hank's outlook on his dark life.
To Marc Forster's credit, "Monster's Ball" never succumbs to the rather easy coincidences that screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos come up with for their characters. Forster has much more faith in his film, and for every Hollywood twist, he backs it up with honesty and a sincere heart. A deftly assembled picture (this is Forster's second film), "Monster's Ball" uses these left turns in the narrative to shock the audience into submission. Just like Janet Leigh in "Psycho," major characters are written out of the picture without warning. It leaves "Ball" with a lovely unpredictable quality that never quite exits the film, even in the end. You end up glued to your seat, as anything could happen to anyone, and you don't want to miss one frame.
Forster also doesn't flinch in addressing Buck's bigotry. Maybe I've just become jaded in these times of political correctness and mass-audience appeal (two things not inherently evil, but used too much), but to hear Buck's unpleasant outlook on life chilled me to the core. The filmmakers get off lightly by setting the film in the south, but that doesn't tarnish the power of both Peter Boyle's performance as the aging racist (completely recalling his work in the landmark film "Joe") and Forster's unwillingness to water the character down.
While she stole headlines for some measly nudity this summer in "Swordfish," "Monster's Ball" is thankfully a little better representation of what Halle Berry can give to the screen. Taking away her familiar glamour and beaming good looks, Berry is forced to fight her way through this character tooth and nail. It's a heartbreaking performance, mixed with some parental brutality and a dash of raw sexuality. However, it's in this sexuality that Berry falters.
Much will be made of a mid-movie sex scene between Leticia and Hank. The scene is both shockingly explicit and invigoratingly real. Yet to get to this scenein which Leticia and Hank get drunk and trade sob storiesBerry takes a wrong turn with overacting, and we clearly see the seams of her performance. It breaks the character and the film's concentration immediately and erodes all the power that was slowly being built up until that point. Berry recovers, as does the film, but all it takes is one moment of an actor's indulgence to sink all the goodwill I had toward the picture.
Without the controlled artifice of the Coen Brothers to help him through difficult material, Billy Bob Thornton is back to his old southern self in "Monster's Ball." A contemplative, emotional performance, this is the best I have ever seen Thornton. A raw nerve of doubt and self-loathing, Thornton elevates the film and everyone around him (his interplay with Ledger are the film's best moments) with his outstanding performance.
"Monster's Ball" might seem like tough, gritty material on the outside. Yet, once you get inside its heart, the messages of love, change, and hope are waiting to be discovered.
Filmfodder Grade: A-