Monster's Ball: Jeanne Louise Bulliard
Scott Brown
June 07, 2002 AT 04:00 AM EDT

There’s no such thing as foreplay (sexual or thematic) in Monster’s Ball. ”Make…me…feel… good!” black Leticia (Halle Berry) growls to white Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), and blammo!, they grunt into action. This is meant to be shocking because (a) Hank has neglected to mention that he was the guard who escorted Leticia’s husband to the electric chair; and (b) we’re in the racist, timelessly gothic Deep South of Hollywood myth — right down to the slowly rotating ceiling fan.

At bottom, this is the sort of ”important” movie that’s saved from outright glibness only by remaining stubbornly laconic. It’s trying to say something about the estrangement of two congenitally interlinked race cultures — and we know this because the leads engage in raw, protracted sex, filmed at stylish angles. The Oscar-winning Berry pours gallons of energy into an oddly constricted role (stranded somewhere between pragmatist and victim), but the camera subverts her, sliding over her limbs like a pat of butter. The result: Human suffering is inseparable from production design, and it’s clear that the filmmakers are just whistling ”Dixie.”

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