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With: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Sean Combs, Heath Ledger, Coronji Calhoun, Mos Def
Written by: Will Rokos and Milo Addica
Directed by: Marc Forster
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 111
Date: 11/11/2001

Monster's Ball (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Executioner's Blues

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I wasn't sure how I felt about Monster's Ball when I came out ofa screening last month. The film's conclusion baffled me in a way thatwas completely unexpected. And yet, I find that the story and charactershave remained quite vivid in my mind. I keep reliving their experiencesand continue to find them fascinating.

I'm now recommending Monster's Ball with the caveat that it's already been overrated by reviewers and award shows. Roger Ebert has named it the best film of 2001 -- it's not. On the other hand, it's an example of what critic Manny Farber called "Termite Art," a film whose art comes out of self-expression and not a grandiose statement of Importance, which Farber termed "White Elephant Art." ("A Beautiful Mind" is a pure example of the latter.)

The Monster's Ball characters, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry), stuck with me not because they suffered some spectacular disease but because they suffered from loneliness and uncertainty and sadness, just like most of the rest of us do.

As the film begins, Hank is a racist executioner in a Georgia prison, about to put Lawrence (Sean "P. Diddy" Combs) to death. (The title comes from the ritual of going out for drinks the night before an execution.) Hank's son (Heath Ledger) works with him, and Hank continually tries to teach him a thing or two about the job and life, belittling him and badgering him at every turn. Eventually the son can't take it anymore and blows his own head off.

Hank takes this as a sign and quits his job, much to the chagrin of his doubly racist father (Peter Boyle, in a brilliantly nasty piece of work). Hank ambles around town for a while, bumping a few times into Leticia, a dilapidated waitress who can never seem to get to work on time and is saddled with a seriously overweight young son (Coronji Calhoun). After Leticia suffers her own tragedy, the two lonely drifters spend a night in drunken, sorrowful sex.

Director Marc Forster (Everything Put Together) keeps the camera going during these aching moments when most other directors would look away. This sex scene is the film's pivotal moment, and it's shown full-throttle as a revealing, soul-baring way to kill the pain for a night.

Afterward, the pair embarks upon a new relationship fraught with its own potholes (such as Leticia accidentally meeting up with Hank's father). But is this a real relationship, or are these two people merely accepting each other as consolation prizes? And, more importantly, what will happen when Leticia finds out that her new beau is the very man who executed her husband?

Forster unfolds this story like a dry, dusty map, allowing for the small Southern town's oppressive heat, hatred and ennui to become characters as well. The film supplies plenty of pure throwaway moments that enrich the characters and thicken the atmosphere, such as Hank's attempt to get the African-American neighbor kids off his property.

The film's biggest flaw comes at the end. Forster foreshadows all kinds of doom and dread and then drops a completely different ending on us, and I'm not sure everything makes sense. Some of the characters' earlier actions, like Hank naming his new gas station after Leticia, simply don't jibe with this ending.

The film's performances are, of course, routinely excellent, though between Thorton's acclaimed performances in 2001, I would choose The Man Who Wasn't There. Berry conveys a seriously potent desperation that should hopefully earn her an Oscar nomination, and though Peter Boyle hasn't been singled out in any year-end accolades yet, he deserves recognition as well.

It says something that the film has stayed with me well past the entire year-end Oscar season screening frenzy, when I sat through twice the usual number of films. As a result, I think I can promise first-hand that Monster's Ball is an unforgettable experience.

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