by Douglas Messerli
If for no other reason, Monster's Ball deserves our notice simply for devoting its first hour and a half to a series of nearly unbearable events, beginning with the execution of a penitentiary prisoner (played by Sean "P. Diddy" Combs), followed soon after by a series of racist acts played out by the movie's major figure, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), a fight between Grotowski and his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), Sonny's suicide, and the death, by a hit-and-run car, of the child of the executed prisoner. And that's only the beginning: the dead prisoner's widow's car breaks down, she (Halle Berry) loses her job and faces eviction from her apartment.
While all these events are painfully riveting (tears rolled down my face for much of the film), the writers of this work, Milo Addica and Will Rokos, have embellished their characters with so many dilemmas, along with layers of guilt, silent suffering, and social and political injustices, that it is difficult, at moments, to see through to their humanity upon which the rest of the film depends.
Like his own father, Hank has remained a tower of strength by refusing to face anything coming close to friendship or love. He is a silent loner, choosing not even to face the prostitutes he fucks, rejecting any demonstration of love to his son, and, following in his father's footsteps, ignoring any of the strides of equality made by Blacks in the South. Leader of the correctional officers at the local State prison, he determinedly employs protocol as they prepare to execute their prisoner, urging his men, including his own son, to put all feeling behind them: "You can't think about what he did or anything else about him. It's our job."
Los Angeles, December 29, 2001
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (August 2009).