July 14, 2016

Monster's Ball (2001)
Grade: 62/100

Director: Marc Forster
Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle

What it's about. Set in rural Louisiana. Three generations of Grotowskis live in a three bedroom house, and all have worked as guards at the state prison. Buck (Peter Boyle) retired years ago and is an elderly man in declining health. His middle-aged son Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) is one of the prison officers, supervising his young adult son, Sonny (Heath Ledger).

Buck is a deplorable racist, and Hank takes after his father. Sonny is considerably more liberal. He has befriended Lawrence (Sean Combs), a black man on death row, to the chagrin of Hank. Because it is a movie, Lawrence has a perfect ten wife, Leticia (Halle Berry), who has a light coffee complexion, endless money worries, and an overweight adolescent son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun).

Fate, in the form of the screenplay, gradually removes all the obstacles that stand between a most unlikely romance between forty-something lifelong racist Hank and the world's most beautiful dirt-poor waitress, Leticia. Lawrence is executed. Sonny commits suicide. Tyrell, walking along the side of the road with Leticia, is fatally struck by a hit-and-run driver, and it is Hank who plays the Good Samaritan and takes both to the hospital.

Hank has a silent epiphany, and realizes that Leticia, who amazingly has no friends, no family, and no man on her trail, is a prize catch. Lucky for Hank, he apparently has a mountain of savings, since he is able to quit his job, buy a gas station, fix up and give away Sonny's truck to Leticia, put his troublesome father in a nursing home, and move in Leticia. One small bottle of Jack Daniel's, and she's hot to trot. It's good to be Hank.

How others will see it. The low budget Monster's Ball was a modest box office success. Critical praise was forthcoming if not overwhelming. The Academy Awards saw a splendid opportunity to remove one of their albatrosses by making Halle Berry the first African-American to earn a Best Actress Oscar, an uncomfortably long 62 years after a Best Supporting Actress Oscar went to Hattie McDaniel.

Berry was also nominated for Best Actress by the Golden Globes and BAFTA, but the only other nomination from any of those three film festivals was an Oscar nod for Best Screenplay. At imdb.com, the movie has a fairly high 71K user votes and a good-plus user rating of 7.1 out of 10. The over-45 crowd grades it highest, at 7.3, perhaps grateful for the romantic ending despite the three awful deaths requisite for it to happen.

How I felt about it. I have already intimated how unbelievable it is for a spectacular beauty like Leticia to have no one around to help her except for Hank. Almost as difficult to believe is that Sonny has lived in Hank's house his entire life when they are so at odds with each other.

Most unlikely of all, though, is Hank's transformation from angry, violent racist to cagily even-tempered Prince Charming for the burdened but beautiful Leticia. It's like American History X with Sheriff Andy Taylor in the lead.