Monster’s Ball (2001) [Review Re-View]
Monster’s Ball has already garnered two Oscar nominations, including one for the lovely Halle Berry for Best Actress, and received numerous end of the year accolades. Is Monster’s Ball the startling ruminations on race that you’re being told? Well… yes and no.
Set in the South, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) are prison guards at the state penitentiary and preparing for an execution. The man to die is Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) who will be leaving behind an young son and making a widow out of Leticia (Halle Berry). The tension in the Grotowski home escalates especially as Hank has chosen to care for his own ailing father (Peter Boyle), who still finds the time to spout out racist rhetoric through an oxygen mask. One last confrontation leaves a permanent mark of emptiness on the family.
Leticia is struggling to just make ends meet and fight an impending eviction. Her car keeps breaking down on her, she’s been let go from her job as a waitress and she has to raise a son by herself all the while trying to encourage him to lose weight. Leticia is breaking down and her world around her is crumbling. One night Leticia gets into an accident walking home along the roadside and needs assistance badly. The one who pulls the car aside to help is actually Hank. As time goes by he helps Leticia however he can whether its giving her a ride home from the diner or just staying with her so she won’t be alone.
Hank and Leticia come together out of mutual need and grief. They are two people entirely wrong for each other that kindle a passion that seems to transcend race. Leticia needs someone to take care of her, after having a husband on death row and fighting to stay above the poverty line. Hank needs someone to take care of, out of a mixture of compounded loneliness and grief.
Thornton reprises the repressed protagonist of The Man Who Wasn’t There with his portrayal of Hank. His lips are pursed, looking a tad like Mr. Limpet, and he expresses more with a furrowed brow and stare than words could manage. Thornton’s performance is good, and the audience does really end up rooting for Hank, but the performance doesn’t resonate, possibly because of the writing for the character. I guess one could say Monster’s Ball is Halle Berry’s legitimization as an actress. Berry gives the performance of her career and has moments where she’s on the verge of ripping your heart out.
Monster’s Ball is not exactly the scorching portrait of race relations that it has been hyped to be. It’s really more of a story about two characters with race being underscored except for a convenient occasion where it can become the catalyst to a fight.
The film also takes some of its metaphors rather simply. The connection between father and son includes Hank and Sonny using the same prostitute. Hank eats every night in the same diner and always orders a bowl of chocolate ice cream (get it?) and black coffee (get it?).
All the ballyhoo over the explicit sex scene (thank you so much news-fluff) is undeserving. The sex scene is no different than a hundred seen before and many on Showtime during the late hours. The scene serves its purpose thematically in the story for its characters but it really isn’t “hot and steamy” as it’s been dubbed to be. Move along, folks.
Besides the acting Monster’s Ball has some other accomplishments up its sleeve. The cinematography is gorgeous and uses lights and darks to an incredibly effective degree. There are many scenes where you might be paying more attention to how the scene looks than the scene itself. The music is also commendable for the simple task of not becoming intrusive and actually enhancing the story. This is what scores are intended to do.
Monster’s Ball may be the biggest suck-in-air-uncomfortably movie to come out in a long time. I found myself enacting this measure every time someone did something horrible, said something racist or surprisingly died. This may be because I had the entire theater to myself for my own amusement. Monster’s Ball is certainly a well-written and well-acted film. It’s just not up to snuff when it comes to Best Picture speculation.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Monster’s Ball was Lee Daniels’ first movie as a producer and years before his first directing effort, 2005’s Shadowboxer, but it’s clear as ever in 2021 that his influence is all over this movie. The elements that would come to define Daniels’ later movies, like Precious and The Paperboy and The United States vs. Billie Holiday, are here, and that’s the awkward and sometimes jarring discordant elements of the serious and the soapy, of camp and sincerity (the movies are also so unabashedly horny). A Lee Daniels’ movie is trying to say something, sometimes poorly, often too many things and too spread out, and Monster’s Ball is one of those statement movies, or at least it was upon release. It was a screenplay developed in the mid 1990s by actors Milo Aaddica and Will Rokos, and while it attracted talent at points it didn’t really gain traction until Daniels came onboard as its shepherd. You can see what would be so attractive to Daniels, with the mixture of odd elements as its own eclectic brew. It’s a romance that should not work. It’s life lessons about racism that seem heavy-handed. It’s a thrust-heavy sex scene that goes on for four uncomfortable minutes. I think there’s a recognizable argument to be had that this romance doesn’t quite work. It’s more out of necessity than connection, but maybe that’s even the point. These are two wounded people finding solace in one another, and maybe that’s enough in a world of pain and uncertainty, just finding someone who, in Leticia’s words, “makes you feel good.” Monster’s Ball isn’t as wild and campy as other Daniels’ joints, but you can see the DNA of his other movies, the seeds of artistic flowers that would bloom into his style. It’s got a bit more of an arty, indie sheen here, but Monster’s Ball might as well be Lee Daniels’ Monster’s Ball as far as its key influence, certainly more than director Marc Forster.
Re-watching this movie many years later, it’s clear to me that it is not a movie about race relations, though this is an implicit subject as well, but much more an examination on generational toxic masculinity. This makes much more sense for me with the prominence given to Hank’s (Billy Bob Thornton) perspective over Leticia (Halle Berry). It’s about him learning to break free of his racial prejudices, yes, but that’s more one sign of him learning to break free of the tyranny of his father’s influence, and his father (Peter Boyle) is an infirm cartoon of toxic masculinity. This is a man who brags about his wife dying and how many women he cheated on her with. This is a man who calls his grandson Sonny (Heath Ledger) weak because he displayed empathy for an inmate on death row. It’s his close-minded, harmful definition of what constitutes a “real man” that has become the lingering poison infecting the Grotowski family tree. It’s not subtle in the slightest, but Monster’s Ball is effective in communicating cycles of abuse. Hank carries many of his father’s tendencies and views his own son with contempt for not being able to meet these same restrictive definitions of manliness that his father imposed on him. When his son needs him the most, in his cry for help, is where Hank fails him, telling him he does in fact hate him, and that’s when he loses him forever. The rest of the movie is tracing Hank’s journey to breaking free from the vile influence of a decrepit old man.
To that end, the story structure of Monster’s Ball works better. In the span of 110 minutes, Hank has to reflect on what the negative influences of his life are and to break free of them. When he finally decides to put his father in a nursing home, the lady in charge smiles and says, “You must love your father.” Hank is quick to reply, “No, I don’t. But he’s my father.” There is no love between these men because love was most likely viewed as weakness. It’s the last thing Sonny says before killing himself, after his father says he hates him: “Well I’ve always loved you.” When Leticia looks at a picture of Sonny, something that Hank doesn’t share until late in the film, she remarks that Sonny doesn’t look like Hank. He replies that Sonny has his mother in him, implying the things that made him better came from her. This is a character journey that literally culminates in a man performing oral sex on a woman as a sign of his personal growth. Taken by itself, it sounds laughable, but it mostly works in the context of the movie. Surely his father would view the giving of pleasure to another as a waste of energy and time, so his desire to give rather than receive ends up being his character’s defining push away from the negativity of his father.
My issue is that Leticia feels less like a fully-fleshed out person and more like an infantilized victim. She’s a single mother struggling to keep her job, keep her home, and keep her son’s weight in check. Her husband is on death row. She’s got a lot of opportunities to be given dimension and insight. However, the movie never seems to deem her ready for that attention until the very very end, literally the last scene of the movie. Beforehand, she’s more a prop to the development of others, someone to gauge Hank’s personal growth and someone to be inflicted with all manners of indignities and abuses. When she interacts with Hank’s father, and he’s as awful as you would expect, her residual pain and outrage is the final straw for Hank who then moves the old man out. Her entire relationship with her son feels awkwardly handled. Fiction can illuminate the lives of complicated people, people with flaws that don’t always make the best decisions, but her single-minded obsession with her son’s weight, and her subsequent beating of him, feels like another chain of abuse but without the explanation. Otherwise, it’s just a woman in pain berating her son, and then the boy has to die, and it feels excessive. I know that Hank and Leticia bond over their mutual grief over having lost a son, but it feels like Leticia is more a martyr for Hank’s growth. During their protracted sex scene, her voice cracks and sounds uncomfortably childish. At the end, she asks Hank to take care of her because she needs it. She comes across like an infantilized version of a woman who is there to cry and be pretty.
That’s why the final moment of the movie rings so curious for me. After Hank puts his father away, what is the conflict here? Leticia agrees to move in with Hank after being evicted, and it all seems to be going well. Then while he’s out retrieving his favorite ice cream, she discovers that Hank has drawings by her late husband, reshaping her understanding of Hank. But what is that reshaping? Before he was a guy she served at a diner who happened to help her during the most trying time in her life. Does she think he was seeking her out to take advantage of her? How? She got the diner job because she lost her previous job, and it’s not like he sought her out, but she might not be privy to any of that context. It feels like an artificial conflict that’s meant to boil over and possibly spell doom between these two. Can this budding relationship survive this revelation? But I’m still unclear what exactly the revelation is. He worked at the prison? He was involved in the execution of her husband in a way, walking him to the chair? This seems artificially inflated to me. And yet it is only here that the movie gives her the final say, allowing Berry to wordlessly process this new information and whether or not it dramatically changes anything between her and Hank. She never comments to him about it. You just have to study her face, and it’s here where the movie at long last treats Leticia with the courtesy of nuance.
Monster’s Ball was made famous for two reasons: the extended sex scene between Berry and Thornton and her Best Actress Oscar victory, the first ever for a woman of color (and still the only one twenty years later). Let’s start with Berry’s performance, which was definitely a leap above what she had been demonstrating with trashy thrillers and lame comedies. Berry is good here but the Lee Daniels of it all makes it feel like her performance is being pulled into less subtle, more overtly soapy directions against her better judgements. When she gets into a whiny space, I kind of winced, not because her character was undeserving of complaint, but because the movie was shifting her into that infantilized victim box. Berry is good here, but after re-watching Sissy Spacek’s In the Bedroom performance and Nicole Kidman’s Moulin Rouge! performance, I’d rate her third of the chief 2001 Best Actress nominees. Berry is an actress I had mixed feelings about early in my critical career (2004’s Catwoman did not help), but I’ve come around to appreciate her more. I greatly enjoyed her varied performances in 2012’s Cloud Atlas. She recently directed her first movie where she plays a middle-aged kick boxer, and that sounds punishing and possibly eye-opening.
I’m not the only one that seems to come back to the infamous sex scene; it constitutes almost all of the trivia about the film on IMDB (interesting not-sex-scene fact: Wes Bentley was going to play Sonny but mysteriously dropped out –he admitted to struggling with heroin addiction later– and the studio gave the production 48 hours to find a replacement, and that’s how Heath Ledger got it). Also, I had to revise this paragraph several times to remove any phrases that might come across as unintended innuendos. You could argue the sex scene is a turning point. It happens at the halfway point of Monster’s Ball and beforehand Leticia and Hank have expressed no romantic interest. Afterwards, it becomes about their possible odd-couple romance, if that’s what it can even be called. The scene is played raw and desperate, which is why it made me feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t because I was watching two actors pretend to physically go at it for an extended period, it’s because these characters were so sad and reaching out in desperation to feel anything fleeting. The attention given to the scene just feels thematically wrong. It’s not offensively gross but it feels a little too prurient, a little too salacious for what the characters are going through emotionally. Thornton has even said in interviews that this movie might have contributed to his eventual divorce from Angelina Jolie, which seems strange to me considering she was also filming steamy scenes with Antonio Banderas at about the same time (2001’s Original Sin).
Director Marc Forster has had an interesting career since helming this four-million dollar indie. He’s done Oscar-bait dramas (Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner) and quirky indies (Stranger Than Fiction, Stay) and big Hollywood action movies (Quantum of Solace, World War Z). He was hand-selected by producer Brad Pitt to direct World War Z. Forster has no distinct, visible style to him but effectively alters to the genre and story he’s directing. In some ways, this is what a director should be, and yet Forster has never gotten credit for his versatility. Nobody is going to say Quantum of Solace is their favorite James Bond movie, or even the best of Daniel Craig’s run, but it’s not really Forster’s fault that movie didn’t work. His last two movies were smaller dramas, 2016’s All I See is You and 2018’s misguided Christopher Robin, and he’s attached to movies about the Holocaust, a downed World War II pilot, the formation of Greenpeace, and Thomas the Tank Engine, so the man’s versatility continues to go undervalued.
This is my final re-review of the 2001 film slate, and my original review I think mostly holds up. I was thinking the same thing about lazy metaphors and lacking substantial racial commentary, but I better appreciated the scope of the movie not on race but on the effects of toxic masculinity. I think I was more dazzled by the photography in 2001 (or 2002 when it was made available to us in central Ohio) than in 2021. Monster’s Ball is a clumsy but well-intentioned movie that has some pristine elements to it but I don’t quite know if it ever coalesces into the important movie it desires. It’s an interesting artifact of Lee Daniels before he became an industry unto himself, and with Berry showcasing just what she was capable of if given the right opportunity. This began a run of “pretty actress goes drab” of Oscar winners (2002’s Nicole Kidman, 2003’s Charlize Theron, 2004’s Hilary Swank), and so the biggest lesson of Monster’s Ball after all might have been providing a successful template for future actresses to follow a path to Oscar gold.
Re-View Grade: B-
Posted on December 31, 2021, in 2001 Movies, Review Re-View and tagged billy bob thornton, drama, halle berry, heath ledger, marc forster, oscars, prison, romance, sean combs. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.