BY TODD WEISER
Daily Arts Writer
Published February 11, 2002
The movie about the Death Row inmate facing his last days before execution has been told time and time again. It asks whether he even committed the crime. It creates suspense as to whether last minute appeals will keep him alive. It also features that final emotional phone call, or conversation, with the inmate"s family before capital punishment commences. The fact that these situations never arise in "Monster"s Ball" is proof that this is a film that will lead you down roads you do not expect. In Marc Forster"s film, the inmate is not around very long because he is not the focus. "Monster"s Ball" is not about justice, but rather passion, need, hurt and love.
Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) is on Death Row, and is being prepared to die in a few days. Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) are two of the prison guards responsible for carrying out the execution. Hank and Sonny live together along with Hank"s sick, crass and old valued father (Peter Boyle). The three don"t get along too well with each baring lots of love and hate for their respective family members.
Lawrence"s wife Leticia (Halle Berry) is losing her home due to lack of payment, losing her car due to lack of repair and losing her mind trying to raise an obese food-addicted son (Coronji Calhoun) all on her own. Addictions to cigarettes and alcohol temporarily ease her pain.
The passing of Lawrence is certain and has differing effects on Leticia, and on the relationship of Hank and Sonny. However, it is the additional family losses to both Leticia and Hank that send them spiraling down and seeking answers to the tough lives they have lead. Finally, they meet and find solace in each other. Feeling so much pain and confusion, together they unleash unbridled passion and love. Is it really lasting love or just the much-needed comfort they seek so greatly? This is barely questioned as they just try to keep a relationship together based on built up desires.
Halle Berry gives the performance of her career. She remains subtlety beautiful underneath the skin of an emotionally fragile widow. Billy Bob Thornton is equally impressive as he undergoes a major transition of character from the man his father raised to the one he thinks he can be. In a romance so unpredictable and brimming with danger, they both emit warmth, humor and most of all, realism into their characters. The relationship is one of the most powerful and beautiful captured in recent cinema, and their initial lovemaking, filmed as a mix of violence and tenderness encapsulating their lives, is unforgettable.
"Puffy" Combs and Ledger are both wonderful as well, which may be surprising to many viewers. Combs is quiet and thoughtful there is also a great sadness about him that he emits with delicacy and honesty. Ledger proves that he does not need the limelight of the starring role as he (along with the rest of the cast) appears in this low-budget affair that does not even offer him much screen time. But when Ledger is on screen, it is hard to look away from him. Being able to handle, and almost outperform, several highly emotional and furious scenes with Thornton is testament enough to Ledger"s performance.
Nevertheless, "Monster"s Ball" is a platform for Berry and the film"s wonderful, complicated script. Berry shows once again that she is more than just a pretty (very, very pretty) face, and there should be more scripts like this, where it doe not go on the path the audience thinks it will while simultaneously not making all character"s thoughts painfully obvious. "Monster"s Ball" offers many challenges to its actors and its audience, and this journey is heartbreaking, joyful, and redemptive for all.