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Monsterís Ball (Marc Forster) 2001

Marc Forsterís Monsterís Ball is a Southern tinged drama that has moments that are so incisive and good that you wish the package that they came in was better. Thereís little that strikes the viewer as noticeably bad, but the film is filled with episodes that donít carry the gravitas required to sell the moment, particularly in the first half of the movie. One almost wishes that Billy Bob Thornton, the filmís star, had also directed the film, since the sure sustained tone that he exhibited in 1996ís similar Sling Blade would be precisely what this film needs. As such, the film is filled with wordless, sweeping montages that feel more like slack silences, not noticing they lack even half of the emotional impact of the scenes that have dialogue. Thereís also an abundance of shoddy metaphor to be found (the most groan inducing is that Thorntonís character eats chocolate ice cream and drinks black coffee). Itís a shame that one of the few American films this year to intelligently address big, serious concerns such as racism, socio-economic differences, and the death penalty falters on so many of its middling details. 

Still, Monsterís Ball makes few mistakes when it comes to the big stuff. The complexity that is imbued in Leticia (Halle Berry) alone is enough to make the head spin. Sheís a single black mother with a husband on death row, who has an obese son. Her general dissatisfaction with her own life doesnít allow her the motivation to keep her son in better health, but at the same time, sheís fully aware that it would be devastating for him to remain as is, since his race and poverty are already strikes against him. Racism is clearly a two way street here, as demoralizing to its victims as it is dehumanizing to its practitioners, and that perceptiveness makes the filmís eventual moral (it takes a person to truly see a person) all the more surprising. When help finally extends a hand, Leticia is naturally distrustful, and the roller coaster of emotions that she goes through provides much of the filmís drama in the second half, when the film begins to feel like a modern day retelling of the Bluebeard myth. Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), the filmís other main character, is equally complex. The performances that the leads provide are exceptional, and keep many of the melodramatic plot twists that the film throws from feeling false. Even if Monsterís Ball lacks the sheer emotional impact of Sling Blade or the dazzling lyrical beauty of last yearís relatively unnoticed masterpiece George Washington, it stands as a strong entry in the Southern Gothic genre. Its few digressions into manipulative oversimplification (e.g. nearly everything Peter Boyleís character says) tend to fade when contrasted against its many achievements. 

*** 

12-28-01 

Jeremy Heilman