Unfortunately for Monster’s Ball, only about a third of the film really works as well as director Marc Forster wants it to. That’s also the third that’s supposed to be the least important and is there only to set up the main plot of the film. It’s sad to say, but once the real love story — or lack thereof — starts to play out, I occasionally lost interest in what was going on. Not complete interest, and it was still a good film on the whole, but nothing quite gels as well as it should.
The first portion of Monster’s Ball focuses on building things up for us. We meet correction officers Hank (Billy Bob Thorton) and Sonny Grotowski (Heath Ledger). They’re currently getting ready to assist in the execution of a man named Lawrence (Sean Combs), who is married to Leticia (Halle). They have a son named Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun), who is obese and gets yelled at for it. Not by daddy, who has been in prison for over a decade, but by mommy, a constantly stressed out woman who is behind on all of her bills, has a car that’s about to break, and a husband who is about to get the electric chair.
Moving back to our correction officers, they have their own problems. Sonny has never been loved by his dad, and is treated just as poorly as Tyrell is by his mother, apart from the fact that she actually does love him, and just has a nasty temper. Likely the reason for Sonny’s neglect was the obvious disdain between Hank and his father, Buck (Peter Boyle). The two elder Grotowskis of our story are hardened by the times, both having wives who died after (presumably) not getting along well with their husbands. There’s so much anger in this household, even despite Sonny’s youthful optimism.
All of this works just fine. We watch the characters interact with each other in their own separate worlds, rarely crossing over (the only similarity in terms of characters is Lawrence, who appears in both stories), and we get to learn a lot about these characters and what makes them tick. Leticia is a struggling woman without any help, while Hank seems secure in everything except in his relationships with other people.
And then it all goes sour. After the execution (no, Lawrence isn’t getting out of this one), Hank and Leticia begin a relationship. It doesn’t happen right away, but I’m glossing over a couple of key events that I’d rather not spoil. Suffice to say that they two find each other as relief to their current pain. It’s not even really clear whether or not there’s any true love, spark or chemistry between them. The other is a means to an end — in this case, an escape from reality — and that’s good enough.
Well, it’s good enough for the characters. All they need is to have their pain lessened for a few minutes of the day. But what about the audience. We have to watch these hurt people barely communicate with one another, never really understanding what they want, if anything. I mentioned earlier that there’s not a lot of chemistry between them, and whether that’s intentional or not, it doesn’t provide us with anything to grab onto.
What results is a less-than-exciting final two-thirds of the film. Sure, it might be a better character study, but if it’s no fun, is there much point. You can appreciate the artistry that goes into making something like this, but I have difficulty recommending it based on two-thirds of Monster’s Ball not being all that exciting. Characters go through the same sort of motions for quite a while, and whenever any real tension is created, it seems forced.
This is also a very predictable film, right down until its final moments. While I’ll admit that I’m glad the film ended when it did — on a somewhat ambiguous note, if you’re curious, everything leading up until that point was easy to figure out. Even one of the most shocking scenes in the film didn’t catch me by surprise, even if it was loud enough to make me jump. What’s more is that the more interesting relationships get ended or significantly cut down to focus on this artificial relationship by two uncharismatic people. Hurt or not, at least when they were with other people they had energy.
What was attempted to make the film more topical was an added issue of racism thrown into the mix. Buck is the most racist in the film, throwing around slurs casually, but I never really got the sense that his son was prejudiced against anyone. One of the messages that Monster’s Ball tries to bring up is the overcoming of these prejudices (a seemingly racist white man gets into a relationship with a black woman), but that’s not how it really seemed to me. The only times Hank actually acted out against other ethnicities was when he was trying to put on a show for either his father or son. Hank showed some resentment toward his father and his slurs, and never really did anything if he was alone. He doesn’t undergo a change, he just severs ties with the people he’s putting on a show for.
Despite all of this, Monster’s Ball isn’t a bad film. The leads are strong when not acting beside one another, the other relationships work, even if the main one didn’t, and the secondary actors were actually more memorable and got more emotion out of me than the main ones. But the screenplay is muddled, the plot felt contrived, and the film seemed kind of like a mess. A well-orchestrated, wonderfully filmed mess, but a mess nonetheless. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s not necessarily worth your time.