Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball is a depiction of one man’s journey to overcome his lifelong ignorance, but this seems to be the film’s only accomplishment. The grisly drama attempts to address pressing racial issues, but instead it creates a monstrous web of unanswered questions and unfulfilled plotlines cleverly masked by brilliant acting and cinematic beauty.
The first half of Monster’s Ball revolves around a family of executioners responsible for the last days of a black death-row inmate. Billy Bob Thornton is striking as Hank Grotowski, a native Georgian who has spent his life following in his father’s footsteps both as a corrections officer in the state penitentiary and as a racist. Peter Boyle plays Thornton’s retired father and delivers a gritty performance that is a welcome change from his role as the wise-cracking Frank Barone on CBS’s Everybody Loves Raymond. Heath Ledger is Sonny Grotowski, Thornton’s son, a third-generation corrections officer who never lives up to the family’s tough-guy standards and dares to have black friends. Hank and Sonny are part of an execution team assigned to Lawrence Musgrove, a cop-killer skillfully portrayed by Sean Combs, whose impressive performance suggests that his acting career may have as much earning potential as P. Diddy’s current line of work.
Thornton’s portrayal of Grotowski is flawless—his best since 1996’s Sling Blade—and helps one forget such disappointments as 1998’s A Simple Plan. He becomes Hank and leaves no trace of Billy Bob on the screen. Grotowski’s dialogue is limited and purposely lacks profundity, forcing Thornton to convey meaning through action. When Hank descends his front porch to meet his son’s two black friends with a s...
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...m—when the “monster” himself, Lawrence Musgrove, is awaiting death. Chesse creates depth and parallelism between Lawrence and Leticia, bouncing back and forth between the activities on death row and in Leticia’s home. The scene is reminiscent of Dead Man Walking, but Combs’ Musgrove is a welcome departure from Sean Penn’s Matthew Poncelet in that Musgrove accepts his fate and doesn’t fight death. This allows him to be fully effective in conveying what is the film’s best line of dialogue as well as its main theme: “It truly takes a human being to really see a human being.”
Monster’s Ball had the potential to be a gripping tale of love lost and love found, but that potential is lost in a sea of subplots that drowns the main narrative. Forster is left with a film that is little more than a star vehicle for Berry’s and Thornton’s most compelling performances to date.
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