Reviewed by Dennis Morton
Just one extraordinary scene in a movie
is usually enough to etch that film in the public's memory. Is there anyone
who's seen "Alien" who doesn't recall the creature erupting from the belly
of the hapless fellow on the gurney?
Amazingly, in "Monster's Ball", there
are at least four scenes, and maybe more, that could become iconic in film
history. It would be almost criminal to describe even one of them. Instead,
I'll mention a quieter scene that occurs early in the movie.
On the day of his execution, a prisoner
named Musgrove is visited by his wife and son. For a painfully short few
minutes goodbyes are said. The ten year old boy hardly knows what is about
to happen. There are guards everywhere. And cigarette smoke. The guards
usher the condemned man out of the visiting room. And then rush his wife
Leticia and the boy out. Everyone's out now, but the camera remains, at
about the height of the table in the center of the room. Nothing moves
but the blue smoke rising from an ashtray, a ghostly presence in the emptiness.
We know we'll see smoke again, soon, but it won't be tobacco that's burning.
"Monster's Ball" is the portrait of two
desperate people whose lives have been shattered by tragedy. At a time
when each is in greatest need, their paths cross.
We spend the first half of the movie watching
the tragedies unfold. Director Marc Forster spares us little in the way
of excruciating detail. We can't escape the flavor of the protagonists'
lives, all sour and bitterness.
Like trying to name a good actor who doesn't
appear in Robert Altman's latest film, "Gosford Park", it might be easier
to list a social issue that isn't raised in "Monster's Ball". There's no
talk about environmental disasters, world hunger or nuclear disarmament,
but just about everything else surfaces, including capital punishment,
child abuse, racism and miscegenation. It's a small miracle that director
Forster can handle them all. But he does.
"Monster's Ball" has a great cast. Billy
Bob Thornton is matched in power by Halle Berry. She's almost too beautiful
to play the role, but her performance is memorable. Coronji Calhoun plays
Berry's son, and there is a scene between them that had me weeping, both
times I saw the movie. Peter Boyle, as an unregenerate racist, is all too
Marc Forster has a good script to work
with, but he's a very daring fellow. He can change the direction and pace
on a dime, and often does. As Thornton and Berry, gravely wounded survivors,
limp into the second half of the movie, we are ready for anything, because,
as viewers, we've been put to the test, too.
Social scientists and biological scientists
are always argueing the nurture/nature question. Are we genetically destined
or culturally conditioned. There's no preaching in "Monster's Ball", but
there's more than enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that Forster would
probably side with the social scientists. Thornton's character, the son
of a bigot and child abuser, is himself a child abuser, and, on the surface
at least, a racist.
But that's not the real point in "Monster's
Ball". The real point is that desperate people will abandon convention
and expectation when pushed to the brink. This may or may not be a love
story. And in spite of frank sexual scenes, it's not a lust story either.
It's a story of survival. It's graphically told and beautifully acted.
It's easily one of the best movies of the year. Be forewarned to expect
anything, but don't miss "Monster's Ball".
For The Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.
Copyright Dennis Morton 2002