Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Party Of Lasting Value Is Monster’s Ball!

The Good: Acting, Plot, Character
The Bad: Obvious sense of irony, Title
The Basics: Filled with great performances, compelling characters and a great plot, Monster’s Ball takes on prejudice in an interesting, human-driven story.

Last year, Monster’s Ball offered Halle Berry her Best Actress Oscar nomination and win. Instead, Berry ought to have fought for top or at least second billing in this drama. That Heath Ledger is second in the credits over Berry is insulting. And Halle's win for Best Actress was well deserved and not just for the nudity in this flick.

Monster’s Ball is an inadequately titled drama that puts racist Death Row guard Hank Grotowski into a moral dilemma with himself. When he and his son, Sonny, assist in putting to death Lawrence Musgrove, Hank finds himself put into a bunch of coincidental situations with Lawrence's widow, Leticia. Like Lawrence, Leticia is a Negro living in an unlikely present day in the Southern United States. That is to say that after half the film of trying to figure out what time period Monster’s Ball is set in, it is revealed that the setting is modern day Alabama (I had been betting on early '60s based on language and clothes), while the language, locations, and gas prices tend to indicate much earlier. Leticia encounters Hank at the restaurant she works at and later when Hank comes to her rescue when her son, Tyrell is hit by a car. The body count has been rising already as Sonny kills himself in reaction to the execution of Lawrence. Leticia and Hank come together through the passion they both have to want something, anything to go right in their lives.

And it works. As unlikely as it would seem, from the initial drunken sexual encounter, the two form a legitimate, stable relationship. And the film works. Perhaps to the film's credit, the DVD has only three deleted scenes and all of them are only a minute long. Add to that two are obvious cuts that deserved to be left out and you have a fine flick.

The strength of the film is in its characters. Hank has a compelling character arc as does Leticia. They both have incredible stories. Hank's roots are deeply inbred with prejudice and anger while Leticia's soul is one encumbered by an innate desire to love and fix things. The two come together wonderfully, learning and blending with one another.

The easy strength is in the acting. Halle Berry works well doing difficult dialect throughout the film. She wonderfully creates a character quite distinct and different from the actress. And that's what great acting ought to do. Billy Bob Thorton, he makes a character that is far from the creepy, detached figure he has been in every other film I've seen him in. Billy Bob Thorton infuses Hank with both Southern prejudice and Southern hospitality. He creates a character that embodies the worst and best of Southern White culture. He does it well here, too.

And I think it's right to credit the actors here. The writers or director is working with a sense of irony that is incredibly obvious. You have a white prejudiced man ordering chocolate ice cream and black coffee, you have the bullet that slays a son being put in a jar of baby food. Come on! Everything in this film is so obviously constructed that what the actors add to the film redeems much that the visual irony takes away.

Add to that the casting. Halle Berry was wonderful as Leticia. But . . . it was an act of cowardice on the part of the casting department. Halle Berry was great as Leticia, but she is a remarkably safe black woman to be cast in a role that involves prejudice and interethnic romances. What do I mean? It lessens the impact of a white character overcoming his prejudice against black people when the person who redeems him is not terribly dark skinned. Especially in a film like this when so very much of the film sets up obvious color contrasts. Halle Berry was a safe choice designed to eliminate the argument that the film goes too far and bolster Southern box office draws. But Halle Berry does an amazing job and were the film supposed to be about anything other than color blindness, she would be an ideal actress for any role.

It's a sad thing that prejudice still exists. In fact, ideally all roles in film ought to be about character and cast based on the best actors and actresses for the roles. It would be wonderful if the color of an actors skin did not matter. In telling a story like Monster’s Ball where ethnicity is integral, casting does matter.

And outside the title, which is fully explained in the film, but matters little to the subject, this film then has no other flaws.

In fact, the plot, while it requires the suspension of disbelief, is phenomenal. While it ends on a moment that, when I saw the trailer I swore I'd be upset if it ended at, the film works great. The last line comes at an ideal moment. And Monster’s Ball further flies in the face of convention by not tearing the characters apart when the various threads come together. Instead, it works great by not shaking Leticia up any more than she is. And Hank doesn't get right over his need for plastic spoons.

It might not be anything to cheer about, a woman who wants to be dependent falling in love with an emotionally distanced man who until recently was deeply prejudiced and angry, but it's an enjoyable film to watch and it has an important message. Sure, it's obvious in parts, but until we don't need the message any longer, it would be hard to do better than this film.

For other films that explore interethnic relations, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Gentleman’s Agreement
“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Index Page!

© 2012, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
| | |

No comments:

Post a Comment