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'Monster's Ball'

'Monster's Ball' juggles the heaviest issues of them all

Friday, February 15, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In "Monster's Ball," it's clear that Peter Boyle is not playing a variation of his wisecracking father from "Everybody Loves Raymond." It's clear from the minute he opens his mouth and says, in a matter-of-fact way, vile and racist things.

'Monster's Ball'

RATING: R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and violence.

STARRING: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry

DIRECTOR: Marc Forster

WEB SITE: www.monstersball



Even if you've seen all the clips on TV talk shows that give away several key twists, "Monster's Ball" is still shocking and bleak at times -- but memorable and powerfully acted by Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Heath Ledger, Sean Combs and Boyle.

It takes the biggest issues possible, such as life, death, love, hate, racism, desperation, despair, anger, grief, regret, forgiveness and hope, and filters them through a handful of residents in a rural Georgia town. Almost no character leaves the movie the way he came in; they are all transformed or transported in one way or another.

Thornton plays Hank Grotowski, a corrections officer who heads the death team at the nearby prison. It's his job to make sure an execution goes off perfectly, from rehearsing how the condemned will be strapped into the electric chair to overseeing the "monster's ball," or last night of the prisoner's life. In this case, the man who will die is Lawrence Musgrove (Combs), a talented artist with a wife, Leticia (Halle Berry), and son, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun). Driving an overheated junker, Leticia is weary and angry, while the overweight Tyrell is shyly devoted to the father he has known only in a prison visiting room.

It's Musgrove's fate to spend his final hours with Hank and his son, Sonny (Ledger), also a prison guard. Sonny and Hank may share the same house -- with Hank's ailing father (Boyle) -- but they are not mirror images. Sonny, said to take after his late mother, is kind to the African American boys who live in their neighborhood, and, during the final walk to the electric chair, his stomach betrays him. Sonny vomits.

After Musgrove is killed, Hank viciously lashes into Sonny in the prison restroom. Hank's outrage later reignites, with explosive and disastrous consequences. As Hank tries to deal with the aftermath of that cataclysmic confrontation, he meets Leticia, working as a waitress at the all-night diner he frequents.

Hank and Leticia find themselves leaning on -- and literally clinging to -- each other. "Monster's Ball" follows them through surprising revelations and realizations about their lives and families, ending on a note that is quiet but filled with echoes of the past. And possible future.

"Monster's Ball" is rife with themes: father-son relationships, visible and invisible prisons, freedom (watch the TV images that flash during Musgrove's last hours) and the shackles of the past.

Thornton, the man who wasn't there in the recent Coen brothers' movie, gets to turn up the volume and, at other times, be taciturn. Berry, looking little like the best-dressed actress at the Golden Globes, tackles the meatiest, most wrenching role of her career. At times I almost felt as if I could see her act (as opposed to Sissy Spacek's effortless performance in "In the Bedroom"), but Berry does the career equivalent of skipping several grades in school.

You should know that "Monster's Ball" contains an execution scene that is not as horrifying as the one that goes awry in "The Green Mile," but may make you avert your eyes. The R rating also is due to several explicit sex scenes and the sort of language you hope to never hear in real life.

Although director Marc Forster and writers Milo Addica and Will Rokos can be heavy-handed, they create a world where love -- and not the usual truth -- can set you free.

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