By William Wolf

MONSTER'S BALL  Send This Review to a Friend

The first part of "Monster's Ball" details the preparations for an execution of Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs), an African-American prisoner in Georgia, and then the electrocution itself in a harrowing indictment of the barbarity of capital punishment. Time is spent with the final visit of the condemned man's wife (Halle Berry) and their obese son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun), and the situation is heartbreaking even though it is treated without sentiment. After the grisly deed is done, "Monster's Ball" takes a different course that turns into an inter-racial love story and the reconstructed life of a man who was a prison guard at the execution and seems a racist who reflects the meanness of his racist father.

Consider that the corrections officer, Hank Grotowski, is played by the remarkable Billy Bob Thornton and you can envision to some extent the character with whom the film is dealing. Then think of Peter Boyle vividly portraying Hank's racist father Buck and you'll get a further idea of the Grotowski household. What makes Hank change?

For one thing there is a traumatic event involving Hank's son Sonny (played by Heath Ledger) who is treated nastily by Hank. But Hank is a man of contradictions. At the execution he takes it as a point of honor and duty to make sure that the procedure is carried out by his fellow corrections officers without a hitch--that nobody screws up to create a situation that robs the prisoner of dignity in his last moments, and when that happens he is furious. Also, despite his temper and a hostile streak, lurking within Hank is compassion he never could give his own son. Thus one rainy night when he sees an African-American woman in distress because her young son has been hit by a car he stops to assist and rush the boy to a hospital.

We know the woman is Leticia, the wife of the man who was executed, and that the boy is Tyrell. Stopping to assist them leads Hank on a new path, and gradually he takes a liking to Leticia, and she to him. Racial and sexual barriers are broken. In the beginning she doesn't know Hank helped execute her husband, but it's hard to believe that Hank doesn't soon realize she is the prisoner's widow. There are other reasons for disbelief along the way, but the decency of the film and the high caliber of the engrossing acting compensate so that it isn't difficult to accept the relationship that develops. But what will happen when they each learn of their respective connections to the executed prisoner?

Halle Berry's performance is poignant and accomplished, the best work I've seen her do. It isn't surprising that she is getting considerable new recognition, which she absolutely deserves. Thornton is so very different than he is in "The Man Who Wasn't There," which is to say that he is excellent and thoroughly convincing as the character he plays. Marc Forster's direction and the screenplay by Milo Addica and Will Rokos create an atmosphere that makes the Georgia scene seem very real. There is an earthy quality to the places frequented and to the casualness of scenes with a prostitute who works with the nonchalance of someone just doing a mundane, routine job.

"Monster's Ball" is a most unusual and affecting film that deserves to be seen. A Lions Gate Films release.


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