Monster's Ball Movie Review

Strangeways, here we come: Marc Forster represents jungle fever in some mighty odd ways throughout Monster's Ball. Racist Georgia slammer prison guard Billy Bob Thornton frequents his favorite late-night diner after days spent monitoring death row. He orders coffee -- black! And a side order of chocolate ice cream. By the time he sizes up ghetto waitress Halle Berry, you can tell by his hungry eyes (and hungry heart) that he'd love to sink his teeth into a big ol' slice of chocolate cheesecake.

His choco-licious cravings would make for comic gold if Forster were aiming for dark comedy. It really ain't much different from the classic line in Airplane! when that precocious little girl quips, "I like my coffee black, like my men!" But Forster chooses to play it straight and solemn, a hopelessly limiting choice. Without benefit of slapstick satire, Forster's glib presentation of interracial skin's allure feels ignorant and borderline offensive. The only thing missing is Halle Berry biting down on a vanilla wafer -- though she does beat her fat son for scarfing down chocolate bars ("I'll slap the black off of you!").

Forster navigates subtext on the surface, painfully obvious and odious. His simplistic "Dick and Jane" dialogue doesn't evoke Pinter; it's more like a humorless dramatic writing student who never moved beyond short sentences and long pauses. ("Do you love me?" Pause. "I hate you." Pause. "Well, I always loved you!") Suggestive of nothing beyond its own portentousness, there's barely enough to fill a single movie -- therefore Forster crams in two for the price of one.

Movie #1 (Dead Man Walking): Prison guard Hank Grotowski (Thornton) leads redemptive prisoner Lawrence Musgrove (Sean "Puffy" Combs) to his death, frittering away these final hours with the bare minimum of small talk. Hank's good at his melancholy job, not so good at infusing machismo into his sensitive son (Heath Ledger). The family structure breaks down. At the same time, Musgrove's wife Leticia (Berry) beats her kid, screams, cries, curses, smokes, drinks malt liquor, and has a total eclipse of the heart. Movie #2 (Jungle Fever): Hank and Leticia hook up by surprise on a rainy night, dealing with collective loss. It's not long before they're sitting on her couch getting drunk, ready to do the nasty.

There's something about their raw, feral sex scene that feels wrong, and I think I know what it is. Marc Forster shoots Monster's Ball with spare economy, using very little coverage. But this stark quality is blasted wide open when Thornton and Berry get butt naked and screw, and you can practically see Forster writing into the schedule, "Plan at least three days for sex scene; film it from every possible angle; make sure to get extra shots of Berry's butt!"

Nothing wrong with a little skin in movies, but Forster practically leers and drools over Berry's model-quality flesh. He places himself (and us) in Billy Bob's place. Take a slice of chocolate, pass it off as a testament to groping as grief-coping. That Berry was willing to exploit herself is either (a) a testament to her stupidity, accepting a poorly written "crazy black woman" stereotype who gets naked for a paycheck, or (b) kudos to actresses who turned the role down, reducing Berry to lowest common denominator. (She is, too. Swordfish? X-Men? Who gives a shit!)

You can practically see Halle Berry imagining Emily Watson's Oscar nominated shriek-child in Breaking the Waves as she flails for critical accolades. She got them, too -- why, I don't know. Her performance rings resoundingly false, a privileged diva-actress lowering herself to the dregs of humanity and recreating only her ivory tower view of the downtrodden. It joins Tom Cruise's face/off in Vanilla Sky as the most nauseating false modesty in recent memory.

Compare Berry's scene-hogging ballistic fuel to the remarkable Tom Wilkinson's silence and stillness in Todd Field's In the Bedroom. He enters his son's untouched room (once the boy has dropped out of the picture) and takes a look around. Without a single word and only slight, specific movement, Wilkinson suggests multiple ripples of emotion: paternal pride, righteous anger, submissive restraint, and faithful love. Berry can't touch this; she can't even act. She's imitating grief without imbuing it or mining deep. Her waterworks and flailing fists are the stuff of a novice.

Playing white knight to Berry's grieving widow, Thornton starts making friends with "black folk" neighbors and brushing aside his bigoted old dad, played by an underwhelming Peter Boyle. (James Coburn humiliated himself in Affliction, but at least he made a brazen, scenery-chewing impression.) When Forster's supporting characters outstay their usefulness, he casually kills them off or pushes them to the sidelines. He does this with all moral and ethical implications, too -- Monster's Ball timidly examines black-white relations but squeamishly ignores the gray zone in-between. There's a tendency for liberal guilt to give well-intentioned cinematic whitewashing the benefit of the doubt. Don't be bamboozled.

Our kind of party.


Monster's Ball Rating

" Unbearable "

Rating: R, 2001


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