Monster’s Ball: Directed by Marc Forster. With Billy Bob Thornton, Taylor Simpson, Gabrielle Witcher, Heath Ledger. After a family tragedy, a racist prison guard re-examines his attitudes while falling in love with the African-American wife of the last prisoner he executed.
Hank, an embittered racist prison guard working on death row, begins an unlikely, emotionally charged sexual relationship with Leticia, a Black woman and wife of a man sentenced to death. The affair begins just after Hank oversees the capital punishment of Leticia’s husband.
Monster’s Ball (2001)
As I open this review and glance at the news I see a divided America choosing between two very different candidates for the US presidency in 2020, while elsewhere yet another black American has been shot by police officers. One can only despair. Race relations are complex and brutal in the US despite the civil rights movement that garnered headlines across the globe in the 1960s. That is not to say the US is alone. In the UK I look around at a country that has changed dramatically in just a few years, torn apart by Brexit, with intolerance towards people from overseas seemingly growing worse by the day. Only a few days ago I read of some British people being delighted that refugees had drowned trying to find sanctuary here. Personally, I have never understood racism or xenophobia so to hear of it becoming so prevalent in the UK is horrifying but ours is not a proud history when you look back at the so-called “glorious” British Empire. In Marc Forster’s 2001 film, Monster’s Ball, we explore a multitude of relationships, between lovers, families, classes and across a community with love and hate being a regular occurrence.
Monster’s Ball initially looks at three generations of men who have all worked as correctional officers at a prison in Georgia. Buck (Peter Boyle) is retired and now ailing but racial prejudice still runs strongly in his veins. Buck’s son, Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), is deputy warden at the prison and now the man of the house, inheriting much of his father’s racial hatred and not averse to threatening two local boys with a shotgun for being too close to his home. Hank’s son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), also works at the prison but is considered weak by his father and grandfather, not sharing their aversion to black people and being very much a symbol of how attitudes did change in the US over time. Theirs is a man’s world. There are no women here. Hank is a widow while his mother committed suicide with Buck expressing no grief for her loss. Contact with women is at a nearby diner or through momentary sating of lust with a local prostitute. Don’t mess with this male hegemony. The film’s drama unfolds when Hank and Sonny are charged with overseeing the execution of Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs), a convicted murderer. In the aftermath of Musgrove’s death, Hank’s world is turned upside down when he connects with a woman named Leticia (Halle Berry) and her son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun). Despite his inbred prejudice, Hank becomes drawn to Leticia, not realising that she is now the widow of Lawrence Musgrove.
Monster’s Ball is a carefully paced film and requires attention and patience. There are moments of contemplation where the characters are silent, lost in their thoughts as they assess the world around them, each one fragile in their own way though some hide it better than others. While racial division is obvious here, we also have class divide as well. Hank and his family seem comfortable, while Leticia is facing the stress of eviction, her husband’s upcoming execution, not to mention her son being obese and partial to hiding candy bars around the home. Ultimately, it is through mutual tragedies that Hank and Leticia’s worlds become entwined and an unlikely connection between them begins. This isn’t a love at first sight story, nor is it one with the man bringing the woman flowers and sunshine to light up her dark world. The story is often raw and gritty, the characters trying to eke happiness out of grief and sorrow which is never an easy task. One of the few things I knew about this film prior to watching it was that there is a much talked about sex scene. It is graphic but not there just for the sake of it unlike many films. It represents an outpouring of pent up emotion and felt completely apt for the storyline. The acting here is solid with Halle Berry excelling and winning an Oscar for her performance. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, she remains the only woman of colour to have ever received the Best Actress award. Very hard to believe. Billy Bob Thornton is also good here, with Hank bridging the gap between his father and son, having much of Buck’s hatred but buried beneath the exterior is the compassion to be found in Sonny. Where the film suffers is not all the narratives running throughout feeling properly tied up by the conclusion. We are given resolutions of sorts but still left wondering about many things by the time the final credits roll. If you want fast-paced and eventful then this may not be for you but if you have the patience there is still a good film to be found here and the acting is first rate.
Verdict: Strong performances all round but an uneven conclusion leaves more questions than answers.