Monster's Ball

Directed by Marc Forster
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Dante "Mos Def" Beze, Sean "Variable Nickname" Combs, Coronji Calhoun.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, language and violence.

Review by Matt Heffernan <>
February 21, 2002

I'm not sure if it has anything to do with the fact that Monsters, Inc. has finally dropped out of wide release, but the similarly titled (if drastically different) Monster's Ball has finally made it to limited national release. Given the star power, award nominations, and a top spot on a major critic's Top Ten list, it should go wide. Despite all this, it probably won't because it's an art film with too much sex and violence for suburban malls.

Billy Bob Thornton stars as a Georgia Corrections Officer named Hank Grotowski. He is the second of three generations of corrections service in his house; his father (Peter Boyle) is ill and retired and his son (Heath Ledger) is a young rookie. As the film starts, they are preparing for the execution of a cop killer (Sean "Puffy P. Diddy John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt" Combs), who is leaving behind a wife, Leticia (Halle Berry), and a son (Coronji Calhoun).

Hank's son gets nervous during the procession to the electric chair and throws up. This leads to a confrontation at home, after which he kills himself. Hank quits the force and decides to buy a gas station. On his commute, he spots Leticia on the side of the road, dragging her son, who was just hit by a car. He drives them to the hospital, but it is too late for the boy. He takes Leticia home, and soon they start a relationship, but Leticia is not aware of the role he played in her husband's death.

Not many films try to pack this much tragedy into the beginning, but Monster's Ball isn't trying to be like other films. Instead of continuing the slaughter, the film changes direction, becoming more of a love story that is in conflict with racism. The lovemaking between Hank and Leticia (which is depicted quite graphically for an R-rated film) becomes a mutual catharsis after they lose their sons. Director Marc Forster makes excellent use of shadows in obscuring parts of the screen, making the characters seem even more intimate. His use of montage is even more instrumental in concentrating the sex to its very essence.

Certainly all of this could make Monster's Ball the greatest soft-core porn ever made, but there is a lot more to the film. Thornton and Berry both give brutally honest performances. There is no forced emotion in the naturalistic dialogue written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos, who give us their first screenplay. The only real problem with the film (keeping it from four stars or anywhere near the top of my list) is the ending. It could have come from any random John Wayne western, but in the context of such a thoughtful film, it seems arbitrary.

Ironically, the ending could help get it shown on a thousand screens, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for it to happen.

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Review © 2002 Matt Heffernan