The Grotowski home is not the house that love built. Three generations of Grotowski men live under the same roof, but they’re not really a family. There’s patriarch Buck (Peter Boyle), who laments he’s so old he “can’t even remember what a woman smells like.” His son Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) has been raised to follow in his father’s loveless and prejudiced footsteps.
Then there is Hank’s boy Sonny (Heath Ledger), the last of the Grotowski clan, who has been so desensitized to real love that even his encounters with hookers are mechanical and passionless. Like his father before him, Hank is the chief death row guard in a Southern prison. Sonny also works as a guard on death row, but has a hard time embracing his position.
In “Monster’s Ball,” the outstanding new film from director Marc Forster, the lives of all three men undergo radical transformations as Hank tries to break free from the cycle of hate and misery that has inundated his life.
One of the best films of the year, “Monster’s Ball” is also one of the toughest to sit through. The characters and situations become so real that all of the horrible things that happen to them affect us. The script by Milo Addica and Will Rokos is an emotional minefield filled with explosive scenes that remind us how fragile the human condition really us.
On the other end of the seesaw are scenes so tender and simple they overwhelm you with their piercing silence. Forster adeptly assimilates both facets into a riveting drama that is both challenging and entertaining. Forster is blessed with a brilliant cast, but the cast is equally blessed to have a director they can trust.
Even though the sex scenes in “Monster’s Ball” are as nasty, naked and raw as good sex, the actors are asked to bare more than their bodies. They also bare their souls, and it’s this honesty that elevates a simple character study into a film that stays with you long after the final credits have rolled. For every spoken word, there’s an interior dialogue that is equally compelling.
As director, Forster is very specific where he places the camera and how he frames his characters. Every shot is a visual clue, a reminder of how the characters or we are supposed to feel. By keeping the characters to the right or left of the frame, Forster and his impeccable director of photography Roberto Schaefer force us to the feel their isolation and loneliness.
There’s a whole world going on in every frame, yet the characters never participate. It’s only when they come to life and free themselves of their self-made prisons that they are allowed to inhabit the full frame. It’s a subtle visual trick that establishes we’re in the presence of true talent.
Billy Bob Thornton, currently on track to win a Best Actor Oscar for “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” is equally remarkable here. Thornton vividly transforms from a cold, bitter bastard into a man willing to give up his entire life in order to start fresh. Thornton says so much with so little, relying on body language and scalpel sharp reactions to convey his emotions.
It’s a very calculated performance, and Thornton makes it easy for us to accept his character’s transformation and consequent love affair with Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry), the wife of death row convict Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs, in a somber performance).
When Hank and Leticia first meet, she has no idea he was part of the death row team that executed her husband. Like Hank, Leticia is hanging on by a thread. She’s just lost her husband, job, car, and house, and is now facing serious disciplinary problems with her obese son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun).
Leticia lands a job at the small diner Hank frequents, but to him she’s just another waitress. Then tragedy strikes both Hank and Leticia, leaving them so broken and vulnerable that they have no choice but to turn to each other. At first we’re not sure if they made love or just released tension, but when Hank returns with an offer to take care of Leticia we trust his sincerity.
Halle Berry, in her finest performance, doesn’t make Leticia a tragic character, but someone filled with an indomitable spirit to carry on despite the tragedy in her life. Berry’s range of emotions, especially during the final moments of “Monster’s Ball,” convince us that Leticia not only knows who she is, but what he has to do in order to survive. When Leticia strikes out at her son for sneaking candy, we know it’s not punishment but out of concern.
Newcomer Coronji Calhoun is extremely sympathetic Tyrell, who loves his mother dearly but can’t understand why she gets on his case for eating when she turns to the bottle every time her life falls apart. Heath Ledger is also sympathetic as Hank’s son, who can’t grasp why his father doesn’t love him. When Sonny falls apart during Musgrove’s execution, Hank is so angry that he shuts Sonny out of his life and house.
The extremes that Sonny is willing to go to in order to prove his love for Hank is indicative of the nature of the screenplay. The writers drag the characters through hell and back, reducing them to empty shells ready to be filled up by the second chance that life has given them.
As Hank’s hardhearted father, Peter Boyle delivers a chilling performance. While at a funeral, the only thing Buck has to say is that the person was weak. No feelings of loss or sorrow. Just outrage that someone would take the coward’s way out. Boyle is so potent that when Hank finally decides to put him in a home, we not only encourage him, but want to sign the papers ourselves.
Filled with powerful performances, distinguished writing and assured direction, “Monster’s Ball” dances circles around the competition. I suspect that “Monster’s Ball” will be dancing at the Oscar Ball next year.
MONSTER IN THE CLOSETThornton and Berry dance with death in captivating drama
Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Heath Ledger, Peter Boyle, Sean Combs, Coronji Calhoun. Directed by Marc Forster. Rated R. 116 Minutes.
LARSEN RATING: $7.00