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Monster’s Ball (2001)

May 25, 2010

8/10 Bad Dads

Who knew that Jungle Fever and The Green Mile would make for such a good combo?

Monster’s Ball is about a racist, Southern corrections officer whose non-racist, Southern son is doing his best to make his pa’ and racist, Southern grandpa proud by getting into the corrections field without turning into an evil bigot himself. Then one day our estranged father and son execute a prisoner on death row, and through a course of incredibly grim events, the father strikes up an unlikely, yet genuine relationship with the prisoner’s grieving, African-American widow.

This does not sit well with the racist, Southern grandpa. Quiet family dinners are out of the question.

So outside of Halle and her well-deserved Oscar, the one thing I always heard about this movie is that it’s a major Debbie Downer, and it probably helps to know this going in because that statement’s pretty darn accurate. The first hour is depressing as hell, there is hate to spare and things don’t really start to get better until they can’t get any worse, but lucky for us there’s that whole second half where we finally glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s not on par with, say, Mississippi Burning plus Requiem for a Dream, but still, it’s some dark stuff that ends up working really, really well.

The thing I liked most about this script is that for all the bawling and hate-mongering, it’s a generally quiet movie that chooses its words wisely. There aren’t really any shouting matches, it’s just very emotional characters brought to life by an incredibly well-casted group of actors who make a little go a long way when it comes to speaking their minds. In someone else’s hands, I could easily see this kind of story line snowballing into an overwhelming parade of N-words and blind hatred, but it never gets to that point as it winds up focusing more on the human aspects of its characters rather than their prejudices.

Good stuff, and the cast is solid, too.

Even though I need to re-watch Sissy Spacek’s turn from In the Bedroom again, Halle Berry sure went all out on this one. Regardless of my conspiracy theory that sporting your birthday suit makes you a shoo-in for an Oscar, she’s very raw and very vulnerable as our widow, Leticia. Despite how gorgeous she is on her worst day, Halle does a bang-up job of shedding that Hollywood glamour as her character continues to break down from the inside out. And that “Make me feel good” scene with her and Billy Bob was crazy.

But Billy Bob is awesome, too. The guy’s done a whole lot of crap as of late, but he is no freakin’ joke when he’s in the right role. Just look at Sling Blade, A Simple Plan or even Bad Santa, Billy Bob’s got some chops and it’s great when those skills of his rise to the surface like they do here. He turns Hank into one seriously cold-hearted, mean bastard and the strange thing about it is that I found myself less interested in him as he started to change his ways. He plays a fine ex-racist, but, man, was he one convincingly bigoted good ol’ boy and it added a lot to the character. Not to say that racists are more interesting or anything ridiculous like that, the dude just plays a better asshole than he does an asshole with a heart of gold is all.

Peter Boyle’s also great as the grandpa who makes Hank look like Ronald McDonald. Think Rodney Dangerfield in Natural Born Killers, that’s Peter Boyle in Monster’s Ball. So weird listening to a geyser of racial slurs explode from the mouth of Frank Barone, but that’s probably an extra reason for why it works.

And then there’s Heath Ledger as Hank’s son, Sonny, and, naturally, Heath is the bomb. Not to sound like a broken record, but it’s movies like this that remind me of how truly talented he was. Doing this right off the heels of A Knight’s Tale was a bold move in the right direction.

I’m now noticing that I’ve said a lot about the acting and not a whole lot about anything else that makes Monster’s Ball worthy of an 8, but sometimes a strong cast and a modest, character-driven script centered around some damaged folks is all you really need. The final Act isn’t quite as engaging as its ruthless start and I almost wish it had more of a mean streak running throughout if only because those moments brought out the best in the cast, but this is a damn good movie all the same that may very well shake you right up.

Though I’m still not quite sure why they gave it that title considering its reference is only mentioned in passing, and even then it didn’t seem to matter much. Sounds like a weird-ass porno if you ask me.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Darren permalink
    May 25, 2010 9:00 am

    This is another one of those films that has been on my “to watch” queue for ages. It came out during my Junior Cert and I never really caught up with it. Which is a shame, because I’ve been looking for an amazing Heath Ledger film (Brokeback Mountain just left me cold).

  2. May 25, 2010 10:38 am

    Really liked Monsters Ball, there’s a great cast, amazing acting, excellent script. I watched it years ago, but I still remember almost every scene, which is a true sign of a great film.

    • May 26, 2010 7:56 am

      The cast really is the bomb here and there are some awfully memorable scenes to boot.

  3. May 25, 2010 1:23 pm

    just seen bits of it, most of which involved uh, halle berry’s bits..
    agree with Daz – Brokeback Mountain was solid but unspectacular

  4. May 25, 2010 3:10 pm

    I haven’t seen this in a long time, and now I know I can’t miss out anymore. Nice Review!

  5. May 25, 2010 5:46 pm

    Great review, I really want to see this. The Green Mile is my favorite book of all time, the movie is decent, and I own Jungle Fever but never saw it. Now I want to see both! Good review yet again.

    • May 26, 2010 7:58 am

      Thanks, man. Never read the book, but love The Green Mile, and Jungle Fever ain’t bad either, worth a watch. Lookin’ forward to your reviews, Ritz.

  6. May 25, 2010 8:32 pm

    I’m on the fence with this film. I love the Thornton/Boyle/Ledger story, and the way that part of the film is told, but Berry doesn’t cut it what-so-ever, and fuck P Diddy.

  7. May 25, 2010 9:15 pm

    Well, I would put it more at a 6-7 range, but yeah.

  8. May 26, 2010 7:17 pm

    I loved Halle Berry’s son in the movie. Whenever she forces him on the scale and then hits him … that was intense.

    • May 27, 2010 11:33 am

      Yeah, that was rough. That poor kid was a mess.

      • May 28, 2010 1:00 am

        Apparently he came from poverty and the filmmakers didn’t help him out afterwards. He was displaced by Katrina and that’s the last anyone has ever heard of him…

      • May 28, 2010 8:37 am

        Well that’s pretty lame. Poor kid.

  9. Branden permalink
    May 28, 2010 3:23 pm

    I thought it was a solid film, but I can’t imagine watching it multiple time. It’s like “Precious”.

    It was so much death, crying, N-words and Billy Bob ass that I can’t take it. I’ll probably see it again. Maybe.

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