In Monster’s Ball, a white Georgia prison guard breaks with his family tradition of hatred, loneliness, and suicide when he falls in love with the widow of a black inmate he helped put to death. Billy Bob Thornton plays a quintessential Thorntonian man of few words but many demons as corrections officer Hank Grotowski, the dead-eyed racist son of a virulently racist retired prison guard (Peter Boyle), and father of a prison guard son (Heath Ledger) Hank hates because the young man isn’t racist enough. Halle Berry plays Leticia, wife of condemned man Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs), and mother of Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun), a sensitive boy who buries his sadness in obesity. Hank meets Leticia, without divining their cosmic connection, when the debt- ridden new widow takes the graveyard shift at an all-night diner. And even when he does discover her significance in his bleak world — he sees a photograph of Lawrence in Leticia’s house after the two have crossed paths thanks to some more down-home tragedy — Hank keeps the information to himself, the way people often do in movies but rarely in life.
”Monster’s Ball” is artful and earnest, high-minded and atmospheric. It’s inlaid with wordless scenes assembled to create a mosaic of meaningfulness about that most sturdily American of conditions, the possibility of redemption through love. Folks don’t talk much; they drive cars, pour coffee, sit still and stare. And I responded so poorly that I went back and watched the thing again to check my bearings. What was it about this upstanding, well-meaning prestige production that set off my smoke detectors?
There is, to begin, the diagrammatic nature of the melodrama. The screenplay, by Will Rokos and Milo Addica, is built on big action-reactions and forced coincidences that have none of the hair-raising, organic inevitability of, say, ”A Simple Plan,” and yet not enough of the grand operatic abandon of Lars von Trier’s ”Dancer in the Dark.” Hank and his son, Sonny, not only employ the same local call girl to relieve their itches, for instance, but do so with the same cold utilitarian joylessness — standing, and from behind. Apparently, that’s the Grotowski style, but the detail is also included so that when Thornton and Berry enact the ”Monster’s Ball” centerpiece, a long, hungry sex scene, there can be no mistaking the message of the transformative intimacy that occurs with face-to-face physical contact between Hank and Leticia. (Director Marc Forster, cinematographer Roberto Schaefer, and editor Matt Chesse sliver shots of graphic lovemaking with darting images of what appear to be hands in a birdcage. The heart, you see, is being set free. I think.)
Those carefully pasted collage touches, the significance-laden shots and angles, are attractive but suspect. Each character is pretty in his or her detail too — the fat son beaten in frustration by his tippling, sylphy mother for hoarding candy bars; the way Hank likes to eat chocolate ice cream in the middle of the night, favoring plastic spoons. But the prettiness, the way the camera lingers on cunningly lit objects and details and the landscape of a Southern prison (shot at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, its fearful presence felt for real in the towering documentary ”The Farm”), remains just that: scenes of pleasing misery and message. Racism kills. Love heals. Eat at Joe’s.
And nowhere does the movie’s infatuation with loveliness seem more incongruous than in Berry’s performance. She throws her heart into Leticia but leaves us with little to know besides her character’s well-bred fashion sense (a tastefulness contradicted by the interior decoration of her home). That the actress is stunningly beautiful is her blessing (as well as ours) but, at least in this role, a dramatic curse, too. Much as she deserves to be applauded for her willingness to play dingy, Berry is an elegant, polished, gorgeous actress inhabiting the life of a poor, downtrodden woman used to shoddiness and indignity. (Michelle Pfeiffer assayed a similar working-class turn in ”Frankie and Johnny.”) What can be faulted, though, is the extreme refinement with which Leticia is presented, so that even her squalor is photogenic.
One of the movie’s many messages is that Hank needs to take care of someone, and Leticia needs to be taken care of. And it’s wonderful, if no guarantee of future happiness and the abolition of racism, when the two needs can come together. ”Monster’s Ball” is a traffic map of calls and responses, lessons and homework, wishes and fulfillment. All roads lead to acting-award nominations, but none lead to truth.