Monster’s Ball (2002) dir. Marc Forster
Starring: Halle Barry, Billy Bob Thornton, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger
Just where did “Monster’s Ball” come from? Two unknown writers with an unknown German-American director, assembled a top notch cast and delivered one of the most powerful dramas of the decade. YES, I said decade! Having rewatched the film lately and considering the saddening death of Heath Ledger, the film resonates even more today than it did in 2002.
The film has an unusual structure. At first we meet Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) who work together as death row prison guards. Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry) is married to Lawrence (Sean Combs), who’s next up for the electric chair. Though Leticia and Hank never meet in the prison, their lives will soon become entwined in a carnal affair of fueled by powerful emotions. Hank and Sonny live at home with Hank’s father Buck, a frail old racist pig who continues a lifetime of emotional abuse from the couch in front of his TV
The common bond between all these characters is abuse. Physical abuse is implied but it’s the mental abuse handed down from generation to generation that has beaten these characters down. Two tragic events occur which break down Hank and Leticia, but it’s coincidence that brings them together. Or perhaps it’s fate. With nothing left to live for, these two fragile help each other up and give them both an optimistic future.
“Monster’s Ball” is economical – Marc Forster strips his filmmaking down to raw emotion and let’s his fine actors convince us of its reality. Forster manages to make even the most insignificant character memorable. Mos Def who plays Hank’s gentle neighbour made his three short scenes a great boost for acting career and Sean Combs, disappears from his Puff Daddy alter ego and into the skin of the death row-bound Lawrence.
Going back to Heath Ledger, whose role is small but utterly compelling and which propels the movie forward. It’s a great accompany piece to “Brokeback Mountain” and a triumph introspective acting. Halle Berry is a marvel in the film and her Academy Award is richly deserved but arguably the most powerful moment in the film is the confrontation between Hank and Sonny in the living room. If you haven’t seen the film, it’s a shocking and jarring scene.
I still don’t know how Marc Forster commandeered this emotional script, attracted such talented actors and convinced his actors to expose such raw nakedness – both physical and emotional. It’s a special intangible gift of a master director. What’s next for Forster? Yep James Bond. Enjoy.