Marc Forster, USA, 2001
Message films can be tricky to pull off, especially when they tackle
too many topics at once. And Marc Forster's Monster's Ball is the
queen of all message films, a multi-headed hydra that addresses so many
issues (capital punishment, race relations, suicide, dysfunctional
families, obesity and racism, to name a few) that its failure as a
complete and satisfying film is beyond doubt within its first half-hour.
The biggest problem is loss of focus: Which character are we supposed
to concentrate on? Which plot thread takes precedence over the others? And
what's the ultimate point of the whole exercise?
Ball opens with the Grotowskis, three generations of white,
Georgian correctional officers gathered under one roof. The patriarch is
the retired Buck (Peter Boyle, saddled with miserable lines), an emphysema
sufferer, crude misogynist and hard-line racist. Hank (Billy Bob Thornton,
in yet another under-the-radar, carefully-nuanced effort) looks after
Buck, and struggles to maintain a civil relationship with his boy, Sonny
(a solid Heath Ledger). Clearly uncomfortable with the proud family
traditions of racism and prison guard work, Sonny strives to please his
father while uneasily preparing for his first death row execution
Counterbalancing the Grotowskis are the Musgroves, a severely
distressed black family. There's Leticia (a committed Halle Berry), her
overweight son Tyrell (the likeable Coronji Calhoun), and soon-to-die
husband and father, Lawrence (Sean Combs, in a brief but emotionally
resonant role). The establishing shot, as the three meet for the final
time at the prison, works wonderfully, balancing Lawrence's guilt for the
hell his family has endured with Leticia's resentment and grudging
affection for the doomed death row inmate.
As Hank and Sonny share Lawrence's final few hours before leading him to the electric chair, the twin dynamics of the psychological effect
such work exerts on the guards and the anger, fear and self-pity felt by
the condemned mesh beautifully. Had Ball chosen to stay with these
parallel, intertwined examinations, it could have been an honest and
devastating examination of the pros and cons of capital punishment.
Unfortunately, that's just the first half. It's during the final hour
that things go haywire. Suicide, a hit-and-run, crudely forced racial
epithets and various other mini-climaxes come one after the other in
rapid-fire succession, leaving little time to measure impact or calculate
the emotional toll on the survivors. The much-discussed sex scene between
Thornton and Berry is appropriately passionate, although a bit too
self-consciously gratuitous in the way it lingers on Berry's undeniably
appealing assets to convey the stripped-bare emotional punch in the gut it
Oddly, after dropping a near continuous stream of heavy-handed bombs,
the film ends on a quiet, eerily peaceful note that, while surprising,
strikes a sharply discordant tone. The idea that after so much anguish
these characters could find peace so effortlessly and quickly rings false,
as if some deus ex machina has generously lifted an incredible weight off their
shoulders. It simply doesn't work.
What does work, and marvelously so (save for Peter Boyle, who's given
absolutely nothing to work with) is the acting. Berry has the most
to draw from and delivers a stellar performance, while Thornton further
refines his minimalist-to-a-fault everyman style.
The script (by Milo Addica and Will Rokos) while well-intentioned,
understands neither its setting (the Deep South) nor the complicated issue
of race relations. As such, it's unable to deliver any profound
conclusions from within the framework of a storyline too convoluted for
its own good.
Ball's true strength comes in its examination of the lives of
those caught at ground zero of the capital punishment debate. Sadly, its a
stunted exploration, and the rest is merely well-acted, too obvious
The film's title derives from a British tradition involving
the guards who would throw a party for the condemned on the eve of their
execution. Ironically, the film features no such party.
Not Exactly Dr. Feelgood
Forster's previous film, Everything Put Together
tackles with the less-than-cheery subject matter of Sudden Infant Death
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