Picks and Pans Review: Monster's Ball

updated 01/14/2002 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/2002 01:00AM

Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Sean Combs

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Don't let Monster's Ball get lost among all the bigger-name and better-hyped movies that opened this Christmas season. For adult viewers this one has it all: vivid characters, a story that will haunt you for weeks and powerful acting by an exceptional cast.

The setting is rural Georgia, where Hank Grotowski (Thornton) and his son Sonny (Ledger) work as death-row prison guards. There they oversee the final hours and execution of Lawrence Musgrove (Combs), who spent 11 years in jail for murder. As one of his final acts, the condemned man—an amateur artist—sketches the two guards. Of his portraiture, he says, "It truly takes a human being to see a human being."

Consider that the movie's prevailing theme. After Musgrove dies, his struggling widow, Leticia (Berry), and Hank form a friendship when he comes to her aid after an auto accident. Unaware at first of their link through the dead man, the two find their friendship blossoming into sexual need and then, haltingly, love—a journey of great emotional distance for both.

Part of what makes Ball so special is that it keeps a viewer off-balance. From the moment early on when something shockingly violent happens to a central character (to reveal more would be unfair), one remains on edge, unsure where the movie will go next. Directed without affectation by Marc Forster, the film is by turns devastatingly bleak, sexually raw and, at last, quietly hopeful. It examines the legacies that fathers pass on to sons and the effects of racism, with both ideas seamlessly woven into the plot. Thornton has never been better; whippet thin and coiled, he portrays a man who realizes that if he is to go on, he must change—and then does so. Berry is a revelation, giving a blistering performance that brims with anger, hurt, self-loathing, desperate sexuality and finally the understanding that in forgiveness lies a future. In supporting roles Ledger, Boyle and, yes, even Combs all contribute significantly. (R)

Bottom Line: Resolve to see it

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