Monster's Ball (2001) ***
Directed by Marc Forster. Written by Milo Addica, Will Rokos. Photography, Roberto Schaefer. Editing, Matt Chesse. Production design,Monroe Kelly. Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Sean ('Puffy') Combs, Mos Def. Produced by Lee Daniels. A Lions Gate Films release. 108 minutes. Strong R (graphic sex, violence, language)
The film's title is so cryptic as to become precious. There is no monster. No ball, in any of that word's meanings. I spent hours trying to figure out the title's intent - and finally discovered that it is an expression about the last hours of someone about to be executed.
The character is black prisoner Lawrence Musgrove (Sean 'Puffy' Combs) in a Southern state penitentiary. His "ball" is mercilessly, graphically detailed. It is almost an exercise in subject and audience sadism. It starts with a visit by his wife (ex-wife?) Leticia (Halle Berry) who chain-smokes and looks bored, and their 10-year old son Tyrell who is a very obese candy bulimic.
In charge of Mr. Musgrove's demise is leading corrections officer Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), a widower (she had committed suicide), the older son of Buck Grotowski (Peter Boyle) a retired corrections officer. Buck is a grouch with emphysema, tied to an oxygen tank and a walker. Hank's own son Sonny, is a rookie corrections officer. His granddad and his dad are unmitigated racists, and this in the Georgia of the 1990s.
More details cannot be revealed, especially since the film's happenings are few. The stress is on characters. But I must mention that a depressed Hank quits his job after something happens to his son. As for now widow Leticia she keeps at her waitressing job in a diner that may be the only one in that small town.
We are far, far away from movies-as-entertainment, that commercial principle that makes for huge profits and awful cinema by and large. Here it is all in the acting, which is first-class all around. It is mostly subdued, and woven around a tiny bunch of joyless characters. Their method as well as the film's is naturalism, the few sets are very realistic. It's what the Italians call "verismo." It extends to speech. Voices are low, mostly non-projected by the speakers. Everything contributes to a downbeat atmosphere. The photography itself is in blue-green hues which stress the depressing mood. The scenes are underlit. Expect no pyrotechnics of any kind. Low-key reigns--well, almost.
The plot, in ways that cannot be detailed, involves the eventual involvement of Hank and Leticia. (No, there's no moral preaching about the man losing his racism.) What does happen is an explosive sex-sequence that details copulation very graphically.
Marc Forster, the 31 year old director, was born and raised in Switzerland, studied film at NYU (class of '93) and has a European non-prudishness about sex and nudity. No doubt he edited down much of the film's explicitness to avoid an NC-17 rating. But what remains is plenty... and un-hypocritical.
The characters are, in a fresh way, true-to-life, original without fanfare, non-clicheed. When somber Hank switches from sullenness to liveliness, he is credible. As for Leticia, as Godard might sayv she is a black widow but not a black widow, if you get my drift.
The story is essentially a short chronicle of a relationship. There are excellent passages. There are some awkward ones too. Like the characters' oft-used incomplete sentences, like life itself, nothing is neatly expounded, little is filled-in.
Who should see this movie? Cinephiles in search of originality within basically familiar structures. Those who can deal with not "having a ball" while watching the screen. Those who accept melancholy downers.