Main cast: Billy Bob Thornton (Hank Grotowski), Halle Berry (Leticia Musgrove), Peter Boyle (Buck Grotowski), Heath Ledger (Sonny Grotowski), Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs (Lawrence Musgrove), and Coronji Calhoun (Tyrell Musgrove)
Director: Marc Forster
Monster’s Ball is actually two very different movies stuck together to give a grotesque chimera. If you stick the head of horse to the body of a pig, you can’t get any more a bewildering result than this one. The first half of the movie is a very obvious preach about racism, bad parenting, bad language, letting your kids become obese, and what seems like every stereotypical American South social ills – and this movie blames everything on the misfortune of being born that way. It’s populist pop-psychology at its most banal here, of course: blame the circumstances and the parents but never the accused.
The other half is a very corny, very cringe-inducing love story. This is the heart of the movie, obviously, as Marc Forster obviously subscribes to James Cameron’s Titanic philosophy: you can preach with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and with all the corniest lines you can think up of (or borrow from bad daytime movies) as long as it’s a love story.
But I still like Monster’s Ball a lot despite cringing and wincing throughout two-thirds of the movie. The reason are twofold: the performances of Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry, the both of them matching each other in sheer presence and charisma where the script fails to deliver. Watching these two is a fine delight, and yes, Halle Berry deserves that Oscar, and her horribly, horribly mama-drama speech on that day is forgiven.
I mean, damn, watch her face in the last five minutes of the movie. She does her character’s epiphany as if she is actually her character, Leticia Musgrove, and that five minutes redeem and even provide this movie everything the last one hour and fifty-five minutes couldn’t deliver.
Leticia loses her husband to the death row and her son to a hit-and-run accident, and she gets evicted from her home too because she can’t make the rent. Racist and uncaring Hank, who happens to be white, falls for her, names a gas station after her, and generally provides her the rescue fantasy she needs.
I can see why some people from the black community are not amused. The most damning is Hank’s faults that this movie blames on Hank’s father (Peter Boyle giving an embarrassing performance as an over-the-top racist pig). The movie tries to bond these two over the losses of their children (Hank’s son commits suicide after the boy had had enough of both his father and grandfather), but on the whole, this movie has too many trite dialogues and unconvincing scenes. The message here, apparently, is that the South is one lousy place to live in, move out people while you can.
But the main actors rise above their mediocre lines. It is Billy Bob Thornton’s beautiful acting, from the kaleidoscope of subtle yet effective nuances of his face to his body language – everything seems perfect. It is he who imbues Hank with the fatalistic air that the script couldn’t provide, and it is his performance that makes me believe that inside, Hank is slowly trying to become a better man. Likewise, Halle Berry bestows her one-dimensional damsel-in-distress, save-me-from-my-ghetto role with a flawed nobility the script never calls for. Leticia isn’t perfect. When Hank tells her that he wants to take care of her, to which she responds that she needs to be taken care of, this is not a cringe-inducing saccharine moment, this is a tender exchange between two dysfunctional, codependent, and beautifully fatalistic screwed-up people.
And Halle Berry’s indescribably perfect last five minutes of this movie – the minutes where her performance will break or make this movie – is just right. I can’t describe how absolutely right her performance is, but it is such a beautiful, heartbreaking moment that she makes the whole relationship sing. I believe her, and I believe Hank when he says that they may make it and they may just be alright. Hello, yes, screwed-up people need love too.
Oh, and the love scenes between those two are hot enough to melt the ice caps. It’s this close to being outright pornography, but you know what? I have never seen anything this beautiful, poetic, violent, or savage. A naked Billy Bob Thornton – oh my.
Anyway, the mesmerizing chemistry between Berry and Thornton makes this movie something that is much more than what the filmmakers originally intended. The original script is an overwrought piece of bad daytime soap movie, but our two fine leads turn it into a beautiful love story of antiheroes overcoming tragedy to fight for a chance at getting a happy ending. So yeah, in good sense, I shouldn’t give this movie so high a rating. It sucks lemons, the script and all, but with Berry and Thornton putting on the performances of their lives, I can’t help but to fall under their spell. Flawed but beautiful, that’s what this movie almost is.