Last night’s movie: Monster’s Ball

Racism: bad. Parents not loving their children: bad. Comfort sex: good. I think that about sums up 2001’s Monster’s Ball. This is the film in which Halle Berry acted so well she became the first African-American woman to win the Best Actress Oscar; I’m sure you remember her tears and acceptance speech. I actually thought Billy Bob Thornton had a more difficult role, though.

The script was also nominated for a lot of awards, including the original screenplay Oscar, but I just don’t see it that way. Written by Will Rokos and Milo Addica–the first produced script by either of them–the story is just missing too many important pieces, substituting set confrontational pieces and speeches instead. Big broad strokes abound: the final visit by Berry and Coronji Calhoun (playing their son) to death row inmate Sean (p. diddy) Combs, the final confrontation between Thornton and Heath Ledger (playing his son with a not altogether convincing accent), the final confrontation between Thornton and Peter Boyle (his dad).

The heart of the movie, though, is the relationship between Berry and Thornton. He essentially completely remakes his life for her but aside from what seems like a really amazing few minutes of sex the movie gives us absolutely no explanation of why. Thornton’s Hank Grotowski shows his racist spurs in an early scene chasing off two neighbor boys with a shotgun. He is the supervisor of the prison team responsible for Comb’s execution and carries the process out in as heartless, emotionless a manner as can be managed.

When Berry and Thornton finally meet there is no recognition of the other and later, as Berry realizes this fact, she simply cries and moves on, without a look of comprehension from Thornton or word of dialog between them. Certainly both of them have a better life, on any scale of measure, together than apart but we never are given a reason. Just circumstances, I suppose.

Director Marc Forster does pull some seriously good performances from the cast (other than Thornton) and interesting visuals but in the end, he has to be held responsible for the lack of cohesion. Thornton, I’m starting to think, for all his acclaim “has the [acting] range of a tetherball” as another commentor on IMDB put it. This worked well, indeed was eminently suited to, The Man Who Wasn’t There, which Thornton made just before this one.

Two scenes, far too obviously intended as a contrast of their characters, point out the most serious flaws of the film. Early on, Ledger visits the town hooker (Amber Rules) and has amazingly fast, unenthusiastic, unenjoyable sex. Later on, Thornton visits Rules–she’s wearing the same skirt and top, still no panties, same motel room–and as they’re about to get busy, just making conversation, Rules spoils the ignoble moment by asking about Ledger.

No doubt Monster’s Ball tries to make some serious, meaningful points but forgets that to be successful a movie must entertain. I was really struck by the contrast with the last movie I watched before this, Stickmen. That was another outside the mainstream movie, trying to show an interesting slice of life conflict but without forgetting this simple rule.

Not recommended although the two big sex scenes between Thornton and Berry are pretty hot.