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Should I Watch..? 'Monster's Ball' (2001)

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Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

Monster's Ball is a drama film released in 2001 and was written by former actors Milo Addica and Will Rokos. Directed by Marc Forster, the film tells the story of a grieving prison warden who begins a relationship with the widow of a recently executed inmate. The film stars Billy Bob Thornton, Heath Ledger, Halle Berry and Peter Boyle as well as Sean Combs and Mos Def in supporting roles. The film is famous for winning Berry her Best Actress Oscar, making her the first African-American woman to do so as well as producer Lee Daniels the first sole African-American producer to have an Oscar winning film. The film received numerous other accolades and a generally positive response from critics, who widely praised the film's performances, screenplay and direction. This positive reception helped the film become an unexpected box office success as well with global takings of around $44.9 million from a budget estimated at just $4 million.

Enjoyable

What's it about?

Hank Grotowski works alongside his son Sonny as corrections officers at a prison in Georgia. They live together with Hank's ailing father Buck, a former prison officer who harbours plenty of bigoted attitudes after the suicide of his wife. Hank, who has recently lost his own wife, is tasked with overseeing the execution of convicted murderer Lawrence Musgrove who has befriended the more introverted Sonny over time with the help of his amateur sketches and artwork including a portrait of Sonny. On the long walk to the electric chair, it proves too much for Sonny who collapses and afterwards, incurs Hank's wrath for being too soft.

Lawrence's wife Leticia has been struggling to raise their son Tyrell by herself, a bullied and overweight child who shares his father's talent for art. Struggling financially and trying to stave off eviction, Leticia takes a late-night job waitressing at a diner Hank often eats at. As her problems begin to spiral and events take a tragic turn, Hank offers Leticia a shoulder to cry on and the pair of them begin to share their grief together which leads to unexpected complications for both of them...

Trailer

What's to like?

To call Monster's Ball uplifting would be a grave mistake - this is story-telling at its bleakest with desperately sad characters acting in a traumatised and self-destructive manner. The film can be tough-going at times but it's almost impossible to tear yourself away from the screen due to the sheer brilliance of the cast. Yes, Berry scooped up her Academy Award and it's well deserved but such an accolade tends to overshadow the excellent work of almost everybody else. Thornton and Ledger are typically superb as the warring parent-and-child caught in a spiral neither can escape from but Doyle is a revelation as the vile Buck, which is a role a million miles away from his legendary comic turns as the Monster in Young Frankenstein or worse, Ray Romano's irascible father Frank in the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond.

It isn't just the leads that generate cinematic magic as the whole cast are fantastic. Combs, better known as rapper P Diddy, delivers in a role that captivates and offers some commentary about capital punishment while his hip-hop colleague Def (now known as Yasiin Bey) also knocks it out of the park as the local mechanic who has a run-in with Hank. I also have to shout out the late Coronji Calhoun who died in 2021 as Tyrell, the only acting role in his career, and one which hits hard with its authenticity and raw emotion. Forster, who would go on to direct films like World War Z and Quantum Of Solace, knows how to get a great-looking shot and the film is an easy watch, despite the torrent of rain and tears throughout. You may be tempted to dismiss this as an overly talkative weepie or just a prelude to the film's explicit sex scenes but that's doing the film a disservice. Monster's Ball prompts some deep introspection about capital punishment, racial prejudice and how complacent we often are in the familiar, even if it's uncomfortable or wrong.

Berry's performance is so powerful, it overshadows every other role she's had since. Her Oscar victory was well deserved

Berry's performance is so powerful, it overshadows every other role she's had since. Her Oscar victory was well deserved

Fun Facts

  • In 2009, Lee Daniels clarified reports that said the role of Sonny was due to be played by Wes Bentley but that he turned the role down. What actually happened was that Bentley was supposed to play the role but pulled out at the last minute, giving the filmmakers just 48 hours to find a replacement which they did with Heath Ledger. Bentley later admitted that his erratic behaviour at the time was due to an addiction to heroin.
  • Prior to this film, Berry had always been reluctant to appear nude on screen and was asked whether this was necessary for this role. She replied, "...without this scene, I think it would be a very different movie. I think it's a pivotal moment and from that moment on, you understand why these two people get together." She also stated that if another role affected her in the same way then she'd be happy to disrobe again.
  • Thornton, who also appears nude in the film, admitted that the sex scenes put considerable strain on his marriage to Angelina Jolie. He recalled a phone conversation he had with her after that scene was shot when he mentioned filming the sex scene and receiving lots of questions from Angelina about what exactly was involved. "Other people's situations are hard, with areas of doubt" he said. "But if you are a thousand miles from home on a film set simulating sex with a beautiful woman, it's even tougher."
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What's not to like?

Like I said earlier, this isn't the sort of film to watch if you're already feeling a bit down. Monster's Ball is a deep wallow in misery and grief, the sort of gut-wrenching pain you pray you never have to experience again when it happens. While I enjoyed the film's overall story, it does feel a little gimmicky at times - I mean, what are the odds of a prison warden falling for the widow of a recently fried convict? Say nothing of the moral or ethical implications of such a relationship, the guilt alone would certainly prevent me from acting on impulse - even if she is Halle Berry. It feels less like a realistic drama and more like a parable of some sorts and occasionally, it just breaks the illusion a little bit.

As for the much-discussed sex scene, this is perhaps the most obvious example of the film feeling unrealistic. The scene is prolonged and extremely raw, emotions just as visible as the various body parts Internet pervs will have long since downloaded. But it just took me out of the moment - by far and away, it's the most memorable part of the film but it is rather at odds with the rest of the film which is far more restrained and interesting and much less concerned about the physical. Monster's Ball is a film about emotions and the pain they cause but sadly, it will be remembered more for its explicitness. In my opinion, the scene didn't need to be as graphic as it is and if I was being cynical, I would suggest that it was merely included just to sell the film to a bigger audience.

Ledger's supporting turn is a devastating and effective performance, emblematic of almost every member of the cast.

Ledger's supporting turn is a devastating and effective performance, emblematic of almost every member of the cast.

Should I watch it?

Monster's Ball is a genuine powerhouse of the film, enriched by quality and depth at all levels of the casting and the efficient direction of Forster. It's so much more than just that sex scene, offering viewers a gripping drama and a level of emotional heft we rarely seen on screen. Berry's performance rightly won her all the plaudits because the film itself isn't perfect and it's not recommended if you're feeling in a similar place as the main characters. But as a demonstration of acting prowess, this is as good as it gets.

Great For: improving the credentials for every member of the cast, pause buttons, gossip column writers, Incels

Not So Great For: depressed viewers, in-flight entertainment, Peter Boyle's cuddly comic persona

What else should I watch?

In an odd way, the film reminded me of Oscar-winning film from that year that featured some blistering performances. Training Day is a politically explosive thriller that sees rookie Ethan Hawke paired up with veteran undercover officer Denzel Washington as he demonstrates the apparent necessity to cross the line to get results. Washington is on fire in this movie, holding nothing back as the cop who has gone to the dark side one too many times and the film is a sweltering journey through the underside of South Central LA. And while the film is a little lighter in tone to Monster's Ball, the film doesn't quite make the most out of his performance and the rest of the cast aren't as strong either. But seeing Berry and Washington scoop the two main acting nods at the Academy Awards was a truly ground-breaking moment, one we'll hopefully see more of in the future.

My biggest problem with films like Monster's Ball is that they sit too comfortably in that most unpopular of genres, what I like to call 'Award Gobblers'. They go all out to scream to the likes of the Academy and various other award moderators for attention while often forgetting about audiences that have paid to see them. One thinks of the likes of The Reader, Dead Man Walking, The Shawshank Redemption and Boys Don't Cry when it comes to these type of films - heavy on dialogue and allegory but light on what most audiences might want from their movies. I have always maintained my position that the first thing any film should do, regardless of genre, is entertain its audience. While I can appreciate the hardcore thespian action on screen or a director pulling the strings to make magic for our behalf, I'm often left feeling underwhelmed or disappointed by the lack of a happy ending which also feels like a recurring theme. 'Gobblers' earn my admiration quite often but as for my honest recommendation, not so much.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Billy Bob Thornton

Hank Grotowski

Halle Berry

Leticia Musgrove

Heath Ledger

Sonny Grotowski

Peter Boyle

Buck Grotowski

Sean Combs

Lawrence Musgrove

Coronji Calhoun

Tyrell Musgrove

Mos Def

Ryrus Cooper

Technical Info

DirectorMarc Forster

Screenplay

Milo Addica & Will Rokos

Running Time

111 minutes

Release Date (UK)

7th June, 2002

Rating

15

Genre

Drama, Romance

Academy Awards

Best Actress (Berry)

Academy Award Nominations

Best Original Screenplay

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

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