By Rob Blackwelder
The opening shot of "Monster's Ball" -- a strenuous, sorrowful, racially-charged drama about finding solace in unexpected places -- is a simple image of Billy Bob Thornton sleeping, his face almost entirely obscured by shadows.
Even though he doesn't move a muscle, his whole body seems somehow racked with so much tension and stress that you inherently understand this slumbering soul is a deeply tormented man.
Now, if he can project all that while completely inert, just imagine how powerful Thornton's acting becomes when he wakes up.
In this candid, gut-level emotional powerhouse, Thornton plays Hank, an embittered, racist, redneck death row prison guard at the same Georgia penitentiary where his malicious, abusive father (Peter Boyle) once worked and where his hounded, hard-drinking son (Heath Ledger) has recently followed in his footsteps.
There's so much hatred and resentment in this family -- from which wives and girlfriends have all escaped through divorce or suicide -- that Hank has no qualms about beating his grown boy in the prison restroom when the younger man can't stomach attending his first execution.
This beratement leads to a shocking turn of events in the family that breaks the lock on Hank's long-dungeoned sense of human compassion and opens the door to the most unexpected and profound relationship of his life. Hank meets Leticia (Halle Berry), a diner waitress -- a black diner waitress -- whose life is even more tragic and turbulent than his own. That execution his son couldn't handle? The inmate was her husband and the father of her forlorn, grossly overweight son. And she's in for far worse heartbreak in very short order.
But before they discover their unfortunate coincidental connection, something sparks between Hank and Leticia. It may not be love, but these two people are experiencing sympathy and trust for the first time in their lives.
Director Marc Forster ("Everything Put Together") taps into incredibly raw susceptibility and soulful, simple scenes of truth and honesty in "Monster's Ball," culling astounding performances from his entire cast. As Hank's shut-in father, Boyle seethes with vicious intolerance and verbal abuse to which Hank habitually kowtows. Demonstrating that there is a lot more going for him than just his young hunk status, Ledger ("A Knight's Tale") is a good match as Hank's son, both physically and psychologically, as he habitually swallows his father's loathing with a Wild Turkey chaser.
Thornton's portrayal of Hank's struggle with an increasing awareness of his own bigotry and self-destructive animosity makes for a hat trick of three phenomenal and entirely distinct performances from the actor this year (see "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "Bandits").
But it's Berry's pained, punctured-heart, bared-soul turn as Leticia that is the movie's emotional lynchpin. You can feel that she's standing on a metaphorical precipice, peering into the chasm ripped in her spirit, and that she takes her first small steps away from the edge when her life intersects with Hank's.
They have moments of tentative tenderness and moments of coarse carnality, driven by a subconscious mutual desire to feel anything but the anguish that has taken over their lives. And it's the candid, complex, unfiltered veracity of such moments that make "Monster's Ball" such a memorable experience.
Forster doesn't take the film in any of the expected directions, but he keeps the viewer on edge by exploiting our expectations and by not shying away from jarring authenticity throughout the film.
He takes you inside the hood worn in the electric chair by Berry's husband (Sean Combs in a strong, if brief, performance) just before he's juiced. He takes you inside the obstinate and ingrained grip that racism still has on America. And he takes you deep inside the hearts and minds of the very real, very touching characters that populate "Monster's Ball" to a degree that makes the film impossible to forget.
Run time: 111 mins
In Theaters: Friday 1st March 2002
Box Office USA: $31.3M
Box Office Worldwide: $44.9M
Distributed by: Lions Gate Films
Production compaines: Lee Daniels Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Fresh: 121 Rotten: 21
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Marc Forster
Starring: Halle Berry as Leticia Musgrove, Billy Bob Thornton as Hank Grotowski, Heath Ledger as Sonny Grotowski, Sean Combs as Lawrence Musgrove, Coronji Calhoun as Tyrell Musgrove, Peter Boyle as Buck Grotowski, Taylor Simpson as Lucille, Gabrielle Witcher as Betty, Amber Rules as Vera, Mos Def as Ryrus Cooper, Taylor LaGrange as Darryl Cooper, Charles Cowan Jr. as Willie Cooper, Anthony Bean as Dappa Smith, Francine Segal as Georgia Ann Paynes, John McConnell as Harvey Shoonmaker, Marcus Lyle Brown as Phil Huggins, Milo Addica as Tommy Roulaine
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