Several Monsters, No Ball

Given the wave of mega-movies that swept over us recently – The Lord of the Rings, Blackhawk Down, and Harry Potter, to name just three – the smallness of Monster’s Ball is refreshing. The unwritten Hollywood creed used to be: Just tell a good story, tell it simply, and tell it well. No longer. The deep pockets behind the movie business like guarantees, and guarantees mean large-scale marketing. This, despite the fact that the good little film still tends to be the one that lingers in the mind.

In the past year, only four films stand out in my memory, all little films – the Nolan brothers brilliant film noir, Memento; Terry Zwigoff’s thoughtful sleeper about lost teens, Ghost World; Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s delightful comedy, Amelie; and now this hard-edged melodrama directed by Marc Forster about broken people fighting for equilibrium, Monster’s Ball.

Here is a film that gets under your skin, even when you try to keep it out. Yes, it’s a melodrama with all the characteristic weaknesses of that genre – the plot runs toward the extreme, the characters shade toward caricatures, the tone is intensely emotional; yet, all of these tendencies are muted enough that the power of the drama’s conclusion remains authentic.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Hank, a corrections officer in New Orleans caught between a racist with a capital “R” father (Peter Boyle) and a sensitive, morbid son (Heath Ledger). Hank oversees the electric-chair execution of a black man, played by rapper Sean Combs, whose wife, Letitia (Halle Berry), will eventually become his love interest and the catalyst breaking his ties to an emotionally sterile past. Hank and Letitia’s broken lives mirror one another and reflect larger relational breaks in the culture.

Once knit together in an intensely intimate, almost desparate consummation, Hank and Letitia develop trust quietly and convincingly – the plot is reminiscent of Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies, in which a down-and-out country musician puts his life together through an unlikely romance with a Baptist woman. In Monster’s Ball, Hank goes from crusted bigot to human being, and Letitia is saved from the bottle and, the film implies, a future offering little beyond prostitution.

Despite these heavy developments (the title, after all, is slang for a condemned man’s last night), the conclusion of the film comes slight and tender. Instead of going the way of preachiness and sentiment, the bane of recent film, Monster’s Ball offers us that gentle mix of love and friendship that produces the best in all romances. I went away from this film thankful for my wife and what we have been given.

I also went away thinking about the casting of Halle Berry as the down-and-out Letitia. Her performance has rightly been praised, but her stunning good looks, so much a part of the viewing experience despite attempts to play them down, throw into question the plausibility of her character. Director Forster, an NYU product with only one significant independent production on his resume, does indeed tease the viewer with the actress; yet, he shows just enough restraint to make the whole thing work – especially at the end. Helpful in this regard is that we are allowed to see Letitia (Berry) in a very ugly, very cruel moment with her overweight son, Tyrell, that reminds us that all that glitters is not gold.

And with the film itself, alas, where we again witness a recent, ugly Hollywood trend – the corrections officers engage in a Bible-reading just before their graphically-played execution, and Hank’s Racist father has what looks like a cross on the back wall of his home; of course, the racism is played out in the most extreme of terms, too. I wouldn’t mind these moments of anti-Christian, political correctness as much if I didn’t sense that I was being offered them with a slightly raised eyebrow.

Despite this, and the obvious fact that this film is for mature audiences only, Monster’s Ball offers us hope. We need more films of this particular size and weight. Independent filmmakers with personal stories to tell that tap into the pathos of fallen humanity, and need no computer graphics, should take heart. The weather may be good for sailing.