House of Pain
'Monster's Ball' gripping drama of race and hate
By Jason Henry

Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton model wifebeaters.

As Oscar contenders hit nationwide release, movie fans may opt to see Monster's Ball. But take note: by embarking on this particular Hollywood journey, the viewer will be foregoing bright lights, powerful music, and over-glamorized, computer-generated special effects. Typically, this animation distracts ticket buyers from the plot (if one exists) to make up for the lack of substance; such is not the case in Monster's Ball. Instead, this passionate feature strolls through harsh emotional avenues that hit hard at every intersection. So powerful is its effect, if Monster's Ball fails to move any viewer in some fashion, he or she is barren of a sensitive heart.

The movie follows two people, Hank (Billy Bob Thorton) and Leticia (Halle Berry), who, through life-altering events, find unlikely companionship. Hank is a white man who works in a prison overseeing death row. His daily routine includes vomiting in the morning, chasing kids off his lawn with a shotgun, and hating his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger). Leticia is a black woman on the edge. She continually struggles to maintain a car that barely works, a house she cannot afford, and a relationship with a son she deems too fat. And the half-pint bottle of Jack Daniel's - always within reach - doesn't exactly help matters. Unbeknownst to Hank and Leticia, their lives are already inextricably intertwined.

The connecting link is Leticia's husband, Lawrence (Sean Combs), a death-row inmate who has exhausted his last appeal. As Lawrence visits with his son and wife on his final night, Hank and Sonny (also a corrections officer) diligently prepare the electrocution.

As the story progresses, the characters' lives descend from bad to worse as a series of tragedies strike. After re-evaluating his priorities, Hank interprets his hardships as a sign to reinvent his life. He distances himself from his bigoted father, leaves his job on death row, and, generally, begins to rebuild his life around something other than hate. Leticia's awakening doesn't come so easily. Arguably suffering even more than Hank, Leticia remains trapped, struggling to pay the mortgage. Emerging from their shattered pasts, Hank and Leticia meet, and (skipping ahead here) begin working on a future together. But the past tends to reverberate loudly and Leticia and Hank frequently find themselves confronted with related problems. Thus the audience glimpses one of our time's most depressing love stories.

The other significant character who can't escape unmentioned is Hank's father, Buck (Peter Doyle). Buck is a corrections-department pensioner who spends his days pouring hate into his son, degrading black people, and, most likely, contemplating ways to reintroduce slavery - truly an enlightened individual. The vitality and conviction of Buck's malevolence is such that everything he states is undeniably honest. And honesty is one of the film's strongest points: every character has, and displays, their own truthfulness.

Candid dialogue is but one of the factors contributing to the realism of Monster's Ball. Director Marc Forster (who's submission to the Sundance Film Festival last year, Everything Put Together, achieved critical acclaim) is the other. In Monster's Ball, Forster enhances the already bleak plot by underscoring the uncomfortable context, not by covering the drama with a beautiful face (OK, OK. Halle Berry is smokin').

For instance, Sonny confronts his father at gunpoint and demands to know why Hank hates him. Hank coldly replies that he has always hated his son. Although incredibly hostile in content, the dialogue is slow, making it that much more painstaking to watch. Forster illuminates Sonny's anguish by allowing a big serving of dead air to fill the theater. By emphasizing silence within the dialogue, Forster conveys the characters' tortured existences – so much so, viewers will find themselves shifting uncomfortably in their seats.

In conclusion I've compiled a list of who should see this movie: First, if potential viewers like a good story, superb acting, and great directing - they should go. Second, if potential viewers like to wallow in depression - they should go. If, however, potential viewers enjoy depression but their time is limited, they should turn on QVC and make an immediate impulse buy, because sitting through the entirety of Monster's Ball requires dedication: it's a long one.