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flick pick | Monster's Ball 2001
Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: Milo Addica, Will Rokos
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Heath Ledger
Look for it at the video store under: drama
Watch it when you’re in the mood for something:
The critic says: / 5 the rating system explained
Fun factor: /5

Plot synopsis Hank Grotowski [Thornton] works as a Death Row guard in the same Georgia prison where his father worked before him, and where his son Sonny [Ledger] is about to follow in the family footsteps. Hank shares a job and a home with his dad and son, but not much else – emotionally detached from everyone around him, he goes through the motions of trying to appease his racist, overbearing and ailing father, and attempts to toughen up his sensitive, unhappy son by continuing the family tradition of constant mental and occasional physical abuse. Hank’s incapable of forming a real bond with anyone around him. But when Hank is put in charge of overseeing the execution of Death Row inmate Lawrence Musgrove, with Sonny by his side, in the boy’s first experience with the harsh realities of the job, Hank finds his life taking a sudden, unexpected and tragic turn. At the same time, Lawrence Musgrove’s wife, Leticia [Berry], finds herself trying to take care of an unhappy, overweight young son who misses his father terribly, and struggling to make ends meet so that they won’t lose their house. When Leticia too suffers a personal tragedy, it’s by pure coincidence that Hank happens to be driving by just when she needs help most. It’s a surprise when Hank actually stops to lend Leticia a hand … and even more of a shock when a relationship develops between the unlikely pair.

Review You can’t have a movie pairing a white man and a black woman (or vice versa), without people wanting to make a big deal about the race issue, which no doubt explains why so many people have summarized Monster’s Ball as "racist white man finds redemption through love of black woman." This,  frankly, is a sad comment on how far we Americans are from attaining anything approaching true color blindness. Because while racism is certainly present in Monster’s Ball – Hank’s despicable dad spouts racist nonsense just about every time he opens his mouth, and Hank himself hasn’t entirely escaped his father’s influence – the relationship that develops between Thornton’s Hank and Berry’s Leticia isn’t about love overcoming racial obstacles. It’s not about love at all, or even lust – what’s most apparent in the interactions between Hank and Leticia is that these two people are seeking comfort above else, anything to make them feel just a little less awful as they go through their sad, difficult lives. They’re not so much soul mates as they are partners in pain, and their sex scenes – raw, graphic, and the subject of much attention thanks to the fact that the lovely Ms. Berry bares quite a lot of bod – are more pathetically desperate than sexy. Neither Hank nor Leticia is even particularly likable enough that you feel like they deserve happiness at first – each has inflicted as much hurt on others as they’ve received themselves. Given how complicated both these individuals are, what’s fascinating about their relationship is how simple it is: Hank and Leticia just make each other feel better when they’re together. And Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry, in two very strong, very believable performances, make you believe in the honesty of the characters’ emotions, even when you don’t particularly like the characters. Glacially slow-paced, and featuring self-consciously arty camerawork that has a tendency to distance the audience from the characters (we’re often watching them half-obscured by chairs and tables, behind windows, in mirrors), Monster’s Ball isn’t a perfect piece of entertainment – at times, it’s not even particularly entertaining -- but if you’re patient, you’ll find a richly textured character study that even dares to end on a satisfyingly semi-optimistic note.—reviewed by Y. Sun

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