Monster's Ball (2001)
Directed by Marc Forster

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * *

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Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) is a prison guard living in rural Louisiana with his ailing father (Peter Boyle) and his lonely son (Heath Ledger). Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry) is a black woman struggling to provide for her own son while her husband waits to be executed in the same prison where Hank works. After both this man and Leticia suffer a series of tragedies, they come into contact with one another and develop a relationship, which leads both of them to face their own imperfections.

I have to admit that I did not have especially high expectations of Marc Forster's Monster's Ball. Prior to watching the film, I believed I was probably in store for one of those insipid inspirational dramas that are so often hailed as great film making. While I cannot say that the movie is a masterpiece, or that it is not essentially inspirational in tone, it is an accomplished and genuinely moving work.


The movie's themes of racism, regret, and personal redemption are hardly new, but each is effectively brought out and intertwined with the others. The director manages to reveal a world inhabited by deeply flawed, even repulsive individuals who, as unpleasant as they are, are still able to engage the viewer. In fact, the moviegoer is likely to find himself not only wrapped up in these individuals' lives, but to be emotionally involved with them.

Hank is a harsh, racist man who repeatedly denigrates and bullies his son in a series of truly disturbing scenes. Leticia, the black woman with whom Hank eventually becomes involved, is only marginally more admirable than he is. She does show an appealing determination to provide for her child while her husband awaits execution in the local penitentiary, and continues to do so after that man's death, but she also incessantly belittles the boy because of his gross obesity. The viewer, though he can sympathize with the woman's resilience, is sure to be chagrined by her cruelty.


Fortunately, such flaws give the film's characters a humanity that they would not have had if they had been without imperfections. What is more, over the course of Monster's Ball, they are shown to become aware of their own faults and to fight against them. That said, neither of the protagonists transforms into a different person. Their changes are far more subtle and, consequently, more convincing. They fight against their shortcomings, but they remain the persons that they are.

Last of all, I cannot fail to note how skilfully all the performers bring their characters to life. The two leads, in particular, are joys to watch. Even most of the supporting players acquit themselves well. A few are given relatively little to do, but do what they could have with their roles, making the movie feel like a revelation of an actual town inhabited by genuine human beings.


Monster's Ball really is a touching, often captivating film. While it is dark and disturbing, it is also, ultimately, appealingly uplifting.

Review by Keith Allen

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