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Monster Mish-Mash

 

Monster's Ball

Marc Forster, USA, 2001

Rating: 2.5

 

 

Posted: February 18, 2002

By Laurence Station

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 assignment.

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 clearly sought.

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 melodrama.

 
Last Bash
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
(2000), tackles with the less-than-cheery subject matter of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

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