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IN SHORT: For the Arthouse or, maybe, more. [Rated R for strong sexual content, language and violence. 108 minutes]
As much as we complained about In The Bedroom a couple of weeks ago, this week we get another set of character studies, Monster's Ball. The difference between the two is that while both stories center on a character's reaction to losses in their personal life, Monster's Ball has a story that is constantly moving in, at least, some direction. We get full characters in this piece, even though it moves as slow as molasses -- when every shot is framed lovely as a painting you know things are moving too slowly. It's real art house film making, which means our ankle was doing a lot of work.
It's an amazing thing about reviewing movies. Most of the time, the films we see begin with a good idea, set up their characters and then fall completely apart in the Third Act -- smartly, since we don't reveal the secrets and surprises of the Third Act. So here comes Monster's Ball, whose writers Will Rokos and Milo Addica and director Marc Forster are so determined to tell their story with words and emotions, rather than action, that they deliver a First Act in which what little action there is is handled so badly that only a monumental effort by principal stars Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry can salvage it in acts Two and Three. Combine the work of that pair with a brilliant emotional plot twist involving secrets buried so deep that only the audience knows the devastation that could be unleashed if they were revealed, and put Monster's Ball in the category of "could have been an absolute lock for a nomination." It may do that but, after a First Act in which supporting characters get no needed development before they vanish, the film looks more like Billy Bob and Halle doing their best to get noticed for Oscar. And that's a shame.
Three generations of Georgian Penitentiary officers all see their lifestyles put to challenges that would have been inconceivable only a year before in Monster's Ball. Tough dude in the middle is Hank Grotowski (Thornton), in the prime of life and career, in charge of the execution crew at Jackson State Penitentiary. It is implied that Hank's father, Buck (Peter Boyle) led the execution crew before he did. The Grotowski Patriarch has no use for African Americans. He can see them out the window walking across his property and would blast 'em off the land if he weren't tied to an oxygen tank, unable to keep himself clean or bathe himself. Buck is tended to by Hank, who is half a notch up the evolutionary ladder. Hank will work with African-Americans -- heck, he has to -- but will not have them near enough to touch him by their own volition. Hank runs the executions squad, and is pleased to have his sole heir join the exclusive crew of monster killers. Sonny (Heath Ledger) will, it is implied, inherit the job as boss if, and only if, he can grow some hair on his nuts and behave the way men like his dad and grandfather think he is supposed to behave.
There is one execution to take place as this film begins, that of Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs). Musgrove has spent 11 years on death row and will leave behind a waitress wife (Berry), who can barely pay the mortgage on the house, and a porky young son who is scared that he will grow up to be just like dad. Musgrove knows that he's scum; knows that he is paying for his sins. He makes the best effort to tell his son that all the bad stuff will die in the chair. He offers up the hope that the boy may have inherited an artistic ability -- the man has spent his time doing good penciled portraits of inmates and officers on Death Row -- that has manifested itself at the end. As well, Musgrove promises to call before the end, but is told that it is a bad idea and off he goes to the deep fryer.
Sonny almost botches the dead man's walk. Hank beats the crap out of him for embarrassing the family. Sonny, sick and tired of years of abuse, decides to opt out of this family and shuffles off. Hank moves on with his life. End of First Act.
Strangely enough that moving on includes a regular trip to a local diner where Hank's regular meal includes a bowl of chocolate ice cream and a plastic spoon. There's a new waitress at the diner; the widowed Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry). Her car is crap. Her job isn't paying enough to keep the house. For reasons that baffle both of 'em, Hank takes the girl into his protection and, as the "relationship" progresses, discovers why she is widowed. Without spilling what tragedy threatens to drown them all, there will be some heavy duty adjustments to the pure racist way of life that the man has grown up with.
Telling more would strip the last two acts which, again, are terrific, of their power. Go.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Monster's Ball, he would have paid . . .
See it. Originally we had slabbed Monster's Ball with a $4 Pay Per View marker ("unless you're partial to films that flourish at the local art house. If so, this is for you.") but we saw the film long before the rest of the Oscar wannabe flicks. We raised the rating because this movie is far better, despite that First Act, than 98% of everything else that wants a statue; it's also because it sits well in our memory. For that, you'll have to trust us when we hide behind the hum-dinger of a last scene surprise. Nothing like The Sixth Sense's surprise -- this one is all emotional and intellectual, but it adds weight to our feeling that Halle Berry should get the statue that the filmstudent critics want to give to Sissy Spacek (addendum 1/23/01)
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