directed by Marc Forster with Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, and Sean Combs opens Feb. 8 at Guild 45
A WHIPPING BOY of American cinema for about as long as the medium has existed, the South has risen and fallen from Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind to Betrayed and Mississippi Burning. From a foreign perspective, however, there's still a peculiar romanticized, doomy appeal to the supposed backwater, the lingering lost-in-translation influence of Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. How they love its mythic freaks and gothic dramas, its humid air of sex and violence. So it is with Swiss director Marc Forster, now following in the portentous tourist footsteps of Wim Wenders and Paris, Texas. Monster's Ball is likewise a projection, an outsider's trailer-park fantasy South used as a canvas for a tale of loss, forbidden love, and redemption.
Georgia prison guard Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) is one mean SOB, the son of an even meaner SOB (Peter Boyle), and the father of an SOB-in-training (Heath Ledger). Branded with an unfairly redneck (ethnic) name, the Grotowski family's calling is to lead predominantly black inmates to the electric chair, and their fractured, dysfunctional family has its parallel in the poor black Musgroves, whom we meet during visits to their patriarch (Sean "Puffy" Combs), awaiting execution on death row.
After her husband's execution (early in the film), Musgrove's wife, Leticia (Halle Berry), ends up waitressing at a diner frequented by Hank (whose wife sensibly left him long ago), so you can immediately guess where Ball will lead: damaged-goods widow and damaged-goods bachelor in an interracial love story on the grave of the condemned. (It's left unclear whether Hank himself pulled the switch on Musgrove, but he's proudly integral to the execution apparatus.) When will the equally desperate and lonely Hank and Leticia realize their morbid connection? Well—that's the kind of Oedipus-like moment of discovery that any good storyteller, like Forster, wisely leaves to the end.
BEFORE THAT SHOCK, before the movie can redeem its sundry melodramatic clich鳠(and it does, barely), Ball slowly works through a grim tour of rural Americana. Hank and his son patronize the same prostitute (amusingly sharing the same sexual position); back home they reside with Hank's feeble but fiercely racist father—three misogynists doomed by their vocation and male code of repression. Only Hank's kid grasps their pathology; during their subsequent fights, Hank angrily compares him to his mother. Compassion is a feminine weakness, and Hank similarly rebukes his son for bonding with Musgrove, who compulsively sketches his wardens before his execution.
"It truly takes a human being to see a human being," Musgrove explains of his portraits, which could serve as Ball's motto. At first Hank is blind to the world, oblivious to Leticia (for whom he leaves $4 on a $3.92 tab!), but she's no less impaired. An embittered lush who's alternately abusive and loving toward her obese preteen son, Leticia has no reason to expect any kindness from Hank—who has no more reason to expect himself capable of such kindness.
That he does, in fact, find that capability amounts to both self-discovery and displacement, since his compassion comes too late for his own son (who quits the scene early). He and Leticia belatedly recognize themselves to be bad parents yet realize that those past failings don't condemn their futures. Their haltingly optimistic romance is touching (if not entirely plausible) for its urgent, restorative power. It's almost shocking when Thornton actually smiles (like he's finally breaking character from The Man Who Wasn't There). His understated performance is all pent-up and almost unconscious anguish, an accomplished study in self-estrangement.
For her part, Berry acquits herself best in enacting the mundane details of poverty and widowhood, smoking nervously and stealing umbrellas. By contrast, her big cathartic speech is crude and embarrassing. (Ball's often clumsy writing and direction don't help the cause.) In the subsequent much-vaunted sex scene, she shows her tattooed ass, but Forster stages things ridiculously, with strategically placed furniture ࠬa Austin Powers.
Their shagging is crude but powerful, like the movie itself. Says rule-bound Hank of his old prison routines, "Let's just keep going until we get it right." After doing many things wrong, in its final moments, Ball does just that.