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Monster's Ball
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 convincing. 
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