Sunday, June 8, 2008

Monster Mash

Halle Berry annoys me. Her Oscar speech annoyed me. Thus, I have avoided Monster's Ball until now. It's a pretty impressive film, but it does have its flaws. Halle Berry is really, really good, but I wasn't overwhelmed by her performance. I mean, it's different than her usual roles, but I don't think it's Oscar-worthy. I'm not sure it should have been nominated or if it's even a LEAD performance. Well, we all know the Oscars were fixed that year anyway.

Monster's Ball takes place in a world where love and hate are often one in the same. It's about Hank Grotowski, a racist, angry cop with a sick, monstrously ("monster's ball" takes on many meanings in this film) racist father (Peter Boyle) and a son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), also a cop, who Hank bullies and abuses like a punching bag. Hank and Sonny are preparing to carry out the execution of Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs), the husband of Leticia (Berry) and their son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun). This is Sonny's first execution, so Hank is putting a lot of pressure on him when he notices his extreme reluctance to perform this act. All of this takes place within the first 20 minutes or so of the film. Then, it gets more complicated as Hank and Leticia obviously get entangled in a brutal, primal, emotionally and physically need-based romance (not unlike Lust, Caution).

Even explaining that much of the plot makes me weary. It's a very thick plot, to say the least. Within the first hour, everything that can possibly go wrong does. Lawrence gets electrocuted (it's not a secret, so no spoiler worries), Leticia is going to be evicted, she can't keep a job, her son is fat, Hank's father is a burden to him and to society in general, there's death, beatings, racial tensions, prostitution, even bad weather. It's just too much. After an hour, I wanted to jump off the building. It was relentlessly depressing. I'm happy to say that the film takes a poignant turn, but how much misery do you really have to pack into one movie? Sheesh.

That's my main problem with the film. It gets lost in its own plot. Sometimes, there's a hurricane of horrible stuff bearing down on you, and sometimes there's just nothing. The movie has difficulty finding a balance. I will say that it's far superior to Crash in controlling the melodrama, though. There are fewer characters in Monster's Ball, which allows it to go way deeper. Monster's Ball is also just a much better film. It's frustrating and exhausting, but ultimately incredibly worthwhile, despite my issues with it.

Monster's Ball was directed by the remarkably versatile Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner, Stranger Than Fiction) with incredible skill. Forster is obviously fantastic with actors. He's a modern-day George Cukor. The performances he gets in Monster's Ball are extraordinary. He also has an eye for framing, composition, and maintaining a consistent, dreary-but-beautiful look and tone.

Mos Def pops up briefly as a minor character, and the more I see of him, the more I admire his talent. Peter Boyle is chilling. Everybody Loves Raymond fans will be in for a rude awakening. The young Coronji Calhoun is great and terrifically naturalistic. I was hugely impressed by Sean Combs' performance. It's astounding. I never knew P. Diddy had that in him. He's extremely nuanced and heartbreaking. Halle Berry IS wonderful, granted, but I just don't get what all the fuss is about. She's not playing Storm in X-Men - give her the Oscar! Maybe I'm being cruel, but so be it. Sissy Spacek should have won that year for In the Bedroom. *cough* FIX! *cough* Besides, the two actors who really struck me in Monster's Ball were Heath Ledger and Billy Bob Thornton.

It still hurts to see Heath Ledger in a film, but I just tell myself that I'm watching his legacy in action. Sonny is a very withdrawn, quiet character, but Ledger adds so many layers to him. He conveys the world with the smallest twitch of the face, look, or vocal inflection. It's a performance that you appreciate more the longer you think about it. He made me cry during the film, but after it was over, what he did really hit me. "Intense" can't even begin to describe it.

Oh, god, I found this montage of Ledger's work in Monster's Ball on YouTube, and it shook me to my very soul. Wow. If you haven't seen the movie, don't watch this. Big-time spoiler alert. If you still want to watch but avoid the spoiler, stop around 3:15. If you have seen it or if you don't care about the movie getting spoiled, please marvel at this amazing man. What a stunning performance. God, I miss him.

The real wonder of Monster's Ball is Billy Bob Thornton. I never heard a thing about him when this was released. It was all "Halle this" and "Halle that." What a tragedy. He STEALS the film, and the movie is mainly about HIS character's journey. The arc Thornton goes through with Hank is miraculous. I've rarely seen anything like it. This is Thornton's best performance by far. His career has been kind of shaky lately. He's really good at playing the scuzzball roles, but it seems like he's fallen into a rut with them. I had forgotten how great he was, and I guess it's partly his own fault for allowing himself to be typecast, but it's a shame that he doesn't get to flex his acting muscles more often. He's a revelation in Monster's Ball. He simultaneously shattered and won my heart. I can't believe that Thornton didn't get an Oscar nomination for this film. He would have given Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom) a serious run for his money. Thornton moved me so much in Monster's Ball that I want to find him, give him a hug, weep on his shoulder, and then thank him.

Monster's Ball is a compelling, wrenching story that has a lot to say about morality and society. The film has problems, but overall, it's really, really good, and incredibly memorable. Haunting even. On a human, emotional level, though, it's excellent. I think Monster's Ball can be summed up with this quote from Lawrence before he's executed: "It truly takes a human being to really see a human being." That's some beautiful food for thought, huh?

Rating: **** (out of 5)

1 comment:

Bill Treadway said...
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