Monster's Ball

Gen X Review Monsters BallHave you ever watched someone chain smoke a pack of cigarettes down to their filters? Is there anything more desperate and sad than the smell of burning tobacco? It’s mesmerizing to watch the ash-end of each cigarette burn.

Monster’s Ball is fascinating in just this kind of way. Essentially the story of lonely people trying to find a way to connect to each other, Monster’s Ball is a powerful – and very disturbing - depiction of life coming apart at its edges. 

Hardened death row prison guard Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) has his share of problems. He and his bigoted father Buck (Peter Boyle) and emotionally disturbed son Sonny (Heath Ledger) live together in rural Georgia. Sonny is a junior member of Hank’s team at the prison, but he’s obviously not emotionally prepared for the job and Buck is slowly dying from lung disease. Hank’s mother and wife are both dead and the three men’s lives are mostly filled with daytime television, executions, illness and isolation. 

Buck has educated his heirs on the meaning of masculinity, and they share (or appear to share) many of his racist, misogynist and prejudice beliefs. Without women to teach them love and affection, Hank and Sonny have become as emotionally distant and cruel as Buck. They are monsters: grotesque creatures stitched together by the worst male codes, horrible, twisted and deformed men incapable of really touching or being touched by anyone.

The family is trapped in a kind of waiting game, suspended in the unhealthy routines of Hank and Sonny’s executioner’s chores and Buck’s slow decline. Sometimes being a man means being terribly alone and disconnected, so sure of your prejudices and preconceived notions that the world seems frozen and dead.   

Although Sonny does not want to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, he doesn’t know how to break free of their grip, and as he prepares for his first execution he confides in his father his desire to try something new. Hank follows the example set by Buck and belittles his son into going through with the last walk, but Sonny falters at the last minute.

The execution goes on as planned but Hank rails at his son that he “ruined that man’s last walk.” Afterwards he confronts Sonny in a men’s room, abusing him both physically and mentally until the young man breaks down. Sonny later finds his own way out of the family.

Leticia (Halle Berry), the wife of the condemned man, is also caught up in repetitive cycles of abuse, anger and isolation. She abuses her overweight son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun), even though he is all that grounds her to the world as she drifts from one dead-end waitress job to another, barely making ends meet. Her husband Lawrence (Sean Combs) has been in jail for seven years and there’s no real connection between them.

While he’s executed she sits quietly watching TV, chain smoking and drinking Jack Daniels. The only thing he has given her is their son, and she can’t even keep him safe. Her world spirals out of control as everything seems to fall apart. Her car dies just as an eviction notice is served, but worse still a car accident sends Tyrell to the hospital during a torrential rainstorm.
Hank, who had been driving aimlessly, sees Tyrell motionless on the sidewalk and stops to help them.  He drives the boy to the hospital, but it’s too late. 

Afterwards Hank drives Leticia back to her house. As he tries to comfort her his own pain rises to the surface and the two find their worlds unexpectedly colliding. Sometimes all that stands between people is a moment that has the power to transform everything: The moment when you say yes or no to the world. Hank and Leticia connect powerfully that first night in one of the best, most horrific and true-to-life sex scenes  ever.  

Love is great when it appears sex, but it’s harder to make things work in everyday life, especially when your only family members are pigs. Buck is the voice of prohibition, of racism and misogyny, of cold, icy machismo, but Hank has more than Buck inside of him. He has something of his mother in him, the old bag of snot complains hotly while sucking on a breath of air. And it’s true: Hank does have enough of his mother in him, enough to say yes to love, anyhow.

Monster’s Ball is about love, but it’s also hard and difficult, like life, so demanding, in fact, that I found myself muttering, “Pass the Prozac, I want out!” half way through the film. 
This film  is industrial gritty and realistic, despite the plot’s obvious shortcomings. Thornton is quickly becoming the definitive master of understated acting and he conveys a lot of emotion with very sparse dialog. You can see Hank’s wretched soul struggling to be free of all Buck’s hate in the way Thornton holds his body.

Berry, for her part, proves that she’s capable of greatness. There’s real poignancy to Leticia’s quest for a safe place and she makes the last scene of this film so lovely that I pardon her appearance in last year’s uber-dud Swordfish. She’s going to have to work very  hard to make me believe she’s not a world-class actress in the rough. 

Monster’s Ball takes place in a hard world, where nothing comes easy for anyone. The ugly urban sprawl that makes the boundaries between Hank and Leticia’s world is so ubiquitous that it could be anywhere, USA. This is a landscape peppered with used car dealerships, fast food restaurants, dry cleaners and all-night diners, an asphalt distopia where most people are walking around with a lot of themselves missing. 

Leticia is desire. She moves like a ghost from diner to diner, never really being noticed or appreciated. Her anger and frustration builds until she strikes out at those around her, but she’s really only responding to the world she finds herself in: A world where she’s not even allowed to leave a footprint and where everything she touches seems to disappear.

The prison where Hank, Sonny and Buck have spent a good portion of their lives is, in a sense, themselves. It is where they’ve had to create these monstrous ideas of themselves, where they had to deny women’s tenderness in favor of a masculine code that detaches them from everyone and everyplace.

But the world these characters live in is also the world they create, and Hank and Leticia have the power to transform themselves and each other through love. Sexual intimacy punctures their isolation, but true love is thornier, takes longer and is longer-lasting. Desperation and desire are powerful tools for change, and it’s never too late to leave the worst you have behind.

Smokers sometimes say it’s the last drag of a cigarette that’s the best.


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