In just one five-minute stretch of Monster’s Ball, you can get a sense for everything that’s wonderful about it—and everything that’s slightly embarrassing. Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), a Georgia corrections officer, sits on the living room couch of recently widowed Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry) while the two swig from mini-bottles of booze. Leticia drunkenly laments family tragedy; Hank, damaged by his own family history of racism and suicide, fumbles awkwardly at attempts to comfort her. And soon the two are on the floor for a marathon session of raw, needy sex.
Monster’s Ball offers a restrained spin on the idea of creating racial harmony through personal experience of “the other.” Much of the time, it’s an insinuating, almost wordless study of grief and the difficulty in shedding the past. Then a snatch of the script or a bit of the direction will try way too hard, and the whole thing will start to feel like a scream for approval of its good intentions.
At the outset, Hank and Leticia’s stories run parallel courses. Hank has followed his racist, invalid father Buck (Peter Boyle) into both prison work and hatefulness, with his own more sensitive son Sonny (Heath Ledger) recently making it a third generation at the state department of corrections. Hank and Sonny are assigned together to the last hours of Lawrence Musgrove (Sean “P. Diddy” Combs), who also happens to be Leticia’s husband. Meanwhile, Leticia attempts to re-construct her life with too many bills to pay and a son (Coronji Calhoun) who has channeled his own sadness into obesity. Leticia waits tables at the diner Hank frequents; their paths cross anonymously and uneventfully.
For most of the first hour of Monster’s Ball, the character drama generally hits the right notes of mournful regret. Thornton gives Hank a dead-eyed acceptance that the beliefs into which he has been indoctrinated are the only beliefs available to him. Doing more with a glance than most actors can do with an entire script, he plays repressed emotion like a master musician. When Hank does explode, during an epithet-filled confrontation with a black fellow guard, you realize it’s because hate is the only emotion he’s ever allowed himself to feel.
Yet during these early scenes, there are hints of the trouble ahead. Boyle, growling references to “porch monkeys,” somehow manages to make real racists look sympathetic by comparison. Bits of character business—like Hank’s penchant for eating chocolate ice cream with a plastic spoon, or Lawrence philosophizing about the soulfulness of his sketches, or Buck keeping a scrapbook of crimes committed by blacks—smack of exercises from a screenwriting textbook. Everything happens quietly, but not always subtly.
Dramatic plot developments ensue, with Hank and Leticia eventually finding their way into one another’s arms. And it’s there that Monster’s Ball reaches both its peaks and its valleys. In that living room scene between Hank and Leticia, Thornton delivers a riveting physical performance, his attraction/repulsion conveyed in every aborted embrace or jerky hand to the shoulder. But Berry never pulls off the transformation necessary for her character. She acts with a “Pick Me, Academy Awards” sign practically hanging around her neck, drawling cringe-worthy dialogue like “My husband loved him some Jack Daniels” despite radiating style and class. Meanwhile, director Marc Forster choreographs their liberating sexual encounter like a bad student film, mixing images of a caged bird with a dozen distant or obscured angles. In case sex scenes weren’t already often uncomfortable to watch, this one almost makes you want to snicker out loud.
Writers Milo Addica and Will Rokos knew enough to create a script that wouldn’t load too much into the things characters said. A story about repression would seem ridiculous with a monologue coming every few minutes. But there’s a lingering sense that neither the writers nor Forster believed they could make their point without somehow turning up the volume every once in a while. For every somber task of cleaning spilled blood, there would be a punch of symbolism. For every nod of the head, there would be a theatrical sob. Monster’s Ball finds just enough resonance to make it respectable, all the while nudging you from behind just to make sure you get it.