Like Dead Man Walking, Monster's Ball draws its title from a piece of death-row slang. On the night before an execution, the guards at a Georgia state prison gather at a local watering hole. From the looks on their faces, they don't appear to be having a whole lot of fun. And one of them, the guy who's responsible for making sure everything goes without a hitch, is having even less fun than that. Billy Bob Thornton's Hank has presided over so many executions that he no longer notices the toll they're taking ' that he begins each day by throwing up, for instance, or that he has to end each day with a soothing bowl of chocolate ice cream. The son and father of death-row guards (they all live together in the same house), Hank may not realize that, before the ulcer spreads to his very soul, he needs to change his daily routines. Of course, what he really needs is a new job. This one is killing him.
Directed by Marc Forster, who was born and raised in Switzerland, Monster's Ball contains a volcano's worth of tamped-down emotion. And Forster doles out the lava like it was melted gold. The movie is shrouded in silence. First, one character says something. Then, after a lengthy pause, another character responds. And you start to wonder whether Hank, who's a racist, and Halle Berry's Leticia, who's black, will ever hook up. When the movie opens, Leticia is about to become a death-row widow. Her husband (ably portrayed by Sean "P. Diddy" Combs) is the latest ball's monster. Taking his cues from Dead Man Walking, Forster ushers us through the condemned man's last meeting with family, last meal, last words. And if this sequence isn't quite as excruciating to watch as it was when Sean Penn was in the hot seat, that may be because we're given so little information about Combs' Lawrence. We don't even know what crime he's committed.
The execution is "successful," but there's a hitch. Hank's boy Sonny (Heath Ledger), a rookie guard whose heart clearly isn't in it, vomits on the way to the electric chair. "Like father, like son," you might say ' a homily further brought home when, in separate scenes, father and son have the same kind of sex with the exact same prostitute. But Hank is infuriated with his son's lapse. "You fucked up that man's last walk," he screams at him. It's revealed that Hank has never liked his son, although it's not revealed why. As in Paul Schrader's Affliction, the hatred (including the racial hatred) is just there, passed down from one generation to the next. And Hank's affliction pales in comparison to that of his father, a stale cracker played by Peter Boyle. Miscast as a Southerner, the genial Boyle does what he can, sucking air through an oxygen machine and uttering the "n" word with his dying breaths.
Monster's Ball is about ending a family curse, about finding a way out of a town that consists entirely of dead ends. For Hank, Leticia represents the sweet promise of redemption. The mere possibility that she might love him ' not today, but someday ' is as soothing to him as his nightly bowl of chocolate ice cream. That's right, chocolate ice cream. Scriptwriters Will Rokos and Milo Addica sometimes overplay the novelistic touches, like the fact that both Hank and Sonny enter the prostitute through the back door, so as to avoid face-to-face encounters. The movie doesn't do a very good job of finessing the transition from Hank the racist to Hank the nonracist; although powerfully motivated, it seems to happen overnight. But thank God it does happen, because the best part of the movie is watching Hank and Leticia hungrily reach out to each other across dark chasms of anger and denial and guilt.
The movie's 31/2-minute sex scene, which comes after a beautifully delivered funny-sad monologue by Berry on the eating habits of Leticia's overweight son, might seem unnecessary if it weren't so thoroughly grounded in character and so dramatically effective. Sick with grief, Leticia wants to feel good, and this strong, silent white guy is just what the doctor ordered. Or is he? Depending on your perspective, Leticia can be seen as either a helpless black woman who needs to be taken care of by someone of a superior race and gender or simply a lost child who seeks refuge wherever she can find it. Either way, Monster's Ball isn't likely to show up on Lifetime anytime soon. But the movie can perhaps be forgiven for proposing that people come together for a variety of reasons, and that those reasons are often as mysterious to the people themselves as they are to the rest of us.
"The director thought I was too beautiful or something," Berry recently told The New York Times. Well, duh. But it's not the beauty so much as the relaxed perkiness that Berry had to put under wraps. Hers is not a great performance, but it has some great moments, as when Leticia starts slapping her candy-hoarding son and calling him a "fat little piggie." (He's building a moat around himself, a moat made of fat.) As for Thornton, he's much more effective than he was in The Man Who Wasn't There, where he finally disappeared altogether. With the exception of One False Move, Thornton's never seemed especially tough or mean, and so it's rather hard to believe Hank when he says, over a freshly dug grave, "All I want to hear is that dirt hitting that box." There are times during the movie when it seems like that's all the filmmakers wanted to hear: the thud of buried sorrow. But they dig themselves out just in time.