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Monster's Ball

Monster's Ball
Emotionally charged direction and strong performances keep 2001's Monster's Ball, a tale of racism, loss, and guilt watchable despite an ambiguous screenplay that doesn't completely commit the way it should.

After the execution of a sensitive black criminal and a personal tragedy, a corrections officer named Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), quits his job and finds himself reevaluating his entire belief system while finding himself accidently drawn into a relationship with the widow of the man that was just executed (Halle Berry).

The screenplay by Milo Addica and Will Rokos actually received an Oscar nomination, though I found it to be the weakest element of the production. Most films spend too much time with exposition, establishing the characters and backstory, but I don't think this one spent enough. The deeply troubled relationship between Hank and his brother, Sonny (the late Heath Ledger) is obvious but the viewer is never given privy to its roots. Almost the first third of the film is devoted to this man's final hours before the electric chair, but curiosity was aroused as to what led him to death row and even if he was truly guilty, since the racism among the prison staff was on display without apology. The conclusion of the story is a little fuzzy too, as we watch the widow go through a huge reveal, but keeps her feeling from Hank.

Director Marc Forster (Finding Netherland) does try to fill in some of the blanks left by the screenplay with a camera that really gets inside most of these characters, who are all terribly flawed and not very nice people. Forster's direction is much more instrumental in making us accept the relationship between Hank and this woman than the screenplay is. The way it's played, Forster wants us to decide if the relationship between Hank and this widow, Leticia, is a product of guilt, loneliness, or genuine romance.

The film is famous for a surprisingly graphic sex scene between Thornton and Berry that is expertly edited and performed by the stars and, for my money, one of the most realistic sex scenes I have ever witnessed. It's realistic because it is about sex...it's not about love or passion, it's about loneliness and a genuine desire to satisfy a physical need. Watch right before the scene begins where the two are sitting on the sofa and Hank tentatively puts his hand on Leticia's back two or three times and quickly pulls away. It was refreshing to see a sex scene that was about sex and nothing more and the difference between this scene and the next time they have sex was like night day.

Halle Berry made history when she became the first African American woman to win the Oscar for Outstanding Actress in a Lead Role. It's a solid performance, but not sure if it was really Oscar-worthy...looking at the other nominees that year, was she really better than Sissy Spacek in In the Bedroom or even Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge? I think this win came from a couple of places. First of all, the Academy was taking a lot of flack at the time (and still are) regarding diversity among the winners. Lead Actor that year went to an African American as well (Denzel Washington for Training Day). Second, Berry was seriously cast against type in a seriously de-glammed role that was like nothing she had ever done.

Thornton is beautifully understated as Hank and Ledger should have received a supporting actor nomination for his troubled Sonny. Mention should also be made of the impressive film debut of Sean "Puffy" Combs as the death row inmate and the late Peter Boyle as Hank's nasty, bigoted father. The subject matter is unpleasant but the direction and performances definitely make it worth watching.