Rated R - Running Time: 1:51 - Released 2/8/02

Warning: it is impossible to review this film without including some "spoilers," plot elements that some viewers may prefer not to know about. If you are such a person, you may want to wait until you've seen the film before reading this review.

Seldom does one see a film as intense and powerful as Marc Forster's Monster's Ball, a dark drama written by first time writer-producers Milo Addica and Will Rokos, that provides a deep and soul-searching study of racism, love, tragedy, and human nature. Forster, a talented new director whose only previous feature release was 2000's similarly themed Everything Put Together, is blessed with a fine cast who prove they are up to the material. Billy Bob Thornton, who has shined in such diverse films as Sling Blade, Bandits, and The Man Who Wasn't There, shows again he's one of the most capable actors currently working, and co-star Halle Berry continues to carve out an important niche for herself as well.

Thornton is corrections officer Hank Grotowski, whose racism, learned from his bitter, frail, and elderly father Buck (Peter Boyle), has not passed on to his son Sonny (Heath Ledger). While this has caused a rift in the family, Hank attempts to establish a bond with Sonny by teaching him his own trade and that of his retired dad. Sonny has just joined the staff at the state penitentiary, and is about to participate in his first execution, the electrocution of convicted murderer Lawrence Musgrove (rap star Sean "Puffy" Combs), whose relationship with his wife Leticia (Berry) has deteriorated to the point that she doesn't even attend the execution. Struggling to make ends meet, Leticia not only has to take care of herself, but their 10-year-old son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun). Tyrell, while he has apparently inherited his father's amazing ability to draw, struggles with obesity, and is punished severely by his mother when she catches him sneaking candy bars.

Soon after the execution, Sonny and Hank have a bitter argument which leads to the young man's suicide and Hank's subsequent resignation from his job. He is left alone with his mean, heavily dependent father, in a home opressed by bitterness and depression, since his own mother also committed suicide many years ago. Although Hank and Leticia don't know each other at first, they meet soon after the execution when she fills in at the local diner where he eats, and then again when Tyrell is hit by a car and Hank takes them to the hospital's emergency room. Tyrell doesn't survive, and Leticia is left with no one, a broken down car, and an eviction notice on the door. It is at this point that these two people, both struggling with the worst that life has to offer, turn to each other for mutual support.

Thornton and Berry show us what acting is in this movie. Hank's transition from a bitter racist to one who is comforted by the love of a black woman shows how tragedy can transform even our deepest convictions, and forces him to deal with the reaction he gets from his father. It is hard to distinguish which is the greater tragedy, between Hank's relationship with his son or his father. Berry is in a similar position, showing with eloquence the struggle within Leticia, showing her love for her son even while he is such a burden to her, both financial and emotional, and her reaction to falling in love with someone whose background is so different from her own. And Boyle, Combs, and young Calhoun all show tremendous talent and style in their supporting roles.

The film's ending leaves the final outcome up in the air; the viewer is forced to draw his own conclusions about how the story turns out. This is a good choice by director Forster, emphasizing that one cannot always count on perfectly satisfying endings in life. Monster's Ball is full of these hard lessons; it is dark, difficult, and unpredictable, just as life sometimes is. ****½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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