Like father like son, or so the monster’s ball tumbles. In Marc Foster’s cure-the-hate melodrama, chocolate love goes a long way in soothing frayed white-black relations. A darling non-argument is also mounted against the death penalty, with Lawrence Musgrove (P. Diddy) doing the prettiest dead-man-walking routine you will see in your life and the millennium-Georgia setting easily confused for ’50s Alabama thanks to Buck Grotowski’s (Peter Boyle) old-school contemptuousness. The ex-cop-turned-emphysema-victim dishes out “porch monkey” and “nigger juice” with such histrionic zeal he would have made James Coburn proud. His son Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) is similarly afflicted, although his grandson Sonny (Heath Ledger) looks to stray from the litter, which means exiting from the world with a you-never-loved-me bang, leaving Hank to reassess his race cards by love-shacking with Lawrence’s diva widow, Leticia (Halle Berry).
Mercilessly, that is only the tip of this stultifying cinematic nightmare. Lawrence waits to die as parted curtains reveal frigid death-pen gawkers, Forster’s framing emphasizing their heartless stares while his cutaways heighten the nervous Leticia’s remove from her husband (she’s back home getting juiced). Forster’s compositions marvel at Lawrence’s cigarette smoke and the window-blinds-as-prison-bars that portend little Tyrell’s (Coronji Calhoun) own death sentence. This hamfisted poetic style does not accommodate the nuance of Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Watking, drumming up a bathetic form of sympathy for the story’s cookie-cutter oppressed. Lawrence goes into the night, Leticia drinks, and Tyrell turns chocolate bars into his substitute for daddy. All of this pans out in the poor side of town (away from the Musgrove frying squad), which is separated from the rich part by a bridge that is only one of many metaphors that clutter this dubiously childlike vision of the world.
Leticia has issues, stealing an umbrella on a rainy day and beating Tyrell for being chunky, and soon—almost as if she’s being punished—she’s worrying about more than just Lawrence’s demise and a looming eviction. Hank grapples with his own familial loss with a grain of salt, but he too stands to benefit from an emotional overhaul, and once his taste for chocolate ice cream and coffee has been offensively acknowledged (he takes both black!), it’s only a matter a time before the old dog learns a few new tricks: Leticia opens her legs, he crosses racial lines and goes about befriending the local black folk, and audiences are left screaming, “No, they didn’t!” Will post-coital ice cream allow Leticia to forgive Hank when she learns of his connection to Lawrence’s death? What will Hank do when Buck finally meets his dark-skinned princess? Stay tuned!
The film seems inspired by the race-tension melodramas of yesteryear, only it ratchets up their noxiousness. Berry’s Leticia is conceived as a displaced black woman looking for a savior, accepting Hank’s gifts (sodomy, a roof, his stable white affections) without complaint. They say once you go black you never go back—and so it is that Hank’s racism is cured once he takes to the bootylicious Leticia, choosing her over family and moving Dad into an old folk’s home. (As if portending a sequel, Forster gives the codger a black man for a roommate. Snap!) Forster’s cold aesthetic somehow makes sense within prison walls, but outside it evokes a twisted show of performance art. A brutalizing succession of arch poeticism (dramatic overheads, muddied umbrellas, waiting-to-shut hospital doors), Monster’s Ball plays out as an idealist manifesto for those who think interracial shagging is all that it takes to sooth racial tensions.
Go figure. The scenes where the perverts are likely to pay the most attention are the ones with the most problems on this Monster's Ball DVD. When Heath Ledger's Sonny gets busy with a whore at a sleazy hotel, dirt and flecks are noticeable. Regardless, Roberto Schaefer's lyrical cinematography is delicately preserved here. Notice the strength of the transfer during a scene between Sonny and Sean Combs's Lawrence 30 minutes into the film. Forster and Schaefer dubiously color code their actors (the white Sonny wears a black police uniform and the black Lawrence wears a white T-shirt beneath his prison garbs) yet the color contrast is very impressive. Just as good is the film's 5.1 Dolby Digital sound transfer. The film's appropriately restrained sound design is as complimented by the ethereal, underrated score by the Asche & Spencer team.
The first of two commentary tracks included on the Monster's Ball DVD seems to confirm that director Marc Forster was more concerned with style than substance. For nearly two hours, Forster and Schaefer discuss distancing effects, color schemes and their engagement of other films (Apocalypse Now during the film's opening scene and The Man Who Fell To Earth when Sonny looks into a mirror). Forster's intentions are noble yet borderline offensive because Monster's Ball still feels like it's a film directed by an outsider looking in, one seemingly hoping to appeal to a black mentality. During the film's infamous sex scene between Hank and Leticia, Forster explains the ridiculous cutaways to a caged bird: Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sing. Forster avoids discussing the script's chocolate/coffee metaphors but he does suggest that Thornton's use of a plastic spoon is indicative of the character's childishness. No, Forster is not a black man.
Forster joins Berry and Thornton on the disc's second commentary track. Berry is noticeably passionate about her acting, so much so she refused to let Forster use a hand double for one of the film's scenes. Just as Berry was concerned that another actress's hands would strip Leticia of her authenticity, she voices concern for Coronji Calhoun's emotional well-being as she discusses the scene where she had to beat him for being a "fat little piggy." Thornton is surprisingly frank, saying how he didn't know "what to do with her" during his pornographic sex scene with Berry. More importantly, Thornton off-handedly mentions how he used to love red gumballs. Berry used to like yellow gumballs. Before this commentary track was directed, Forster didn't even know what a gumball. Monster's Ball, a film about very sensitive American problems, seems like it was indeed directed by the wrong person.
The disc's very funny behind-the-scenes featurette may unfortunately force the spectator to look at the film's acting in an entirely different light. Thornton tried to make his fellow actors laugh whenever he was outside the frame of any of their shared scenes. He's funny (despite his unusual obsession with the anus) but this can't be good for actors trying to get into character while trying to suppress laughter. Also included here are four deleted scenes (one particularly silly sequence shows little Tyrell being picked on at the schoolyard) and a Scoring the Film featurette that finds the Asche & Spencer trio speaking lovingly about electric guitars and their minimalist sound.
Get that slow-motion button on your remote control ready. For fans of high drama, there’s enough porn and screaming in Monster’s Ball to please admirers of Berry’s physique and Oscar-worthy acting chops.