*ing: Billy bob Thornton, Halle Berry
Stated simply, Monster's Ball is among the best romances I've ever seen. However, it is not a love story. It is about two wounded people reaching out, and discovering, in the process, that they are still capable of love.
Hank is an executioner at the local penitentiary. His father was a cop, his son is one too. The old man is an irascible bigoted sonovabitch who probably treated his son like scum when he was growing up. The son has grown up with the same behaviour traits, but you can see that he knows the words but not the music. There is a scene where Hank's son asks him, "You hate me, don't you?" And Hank replies, "Yes. I've hated you all my life." But he doesn't say this with spite, he says this with almost a sense of wonder. It's as if he just realized it himself, and is wondering how the hell it turned out that way.
Leticia is a waitress. Her ex-husband, whom she hates for the pain he brought her, is a convict on death row. They have a son, reasonably talented but grossly overweight, and that is a source of annoyance to his mom. The last time they meet before he is executed, his father tells him, "You're the best of me." Just before he is led away, he says to Leticia, "For all the times that I've hurt you, I'm sorry." You can see that this shakes her composure a bit - she was more prepared to go through life hating an unapologetic man who hurt her. Hers is a life on the edge of sanity and solvency - she's about to be evicted from her home, and she's just been fired from one of her jobs.
These are two people as clearly defined as you can ever hope to see in the movies. They are brought together by tragic circumstance, and drawn to each other by the grief that's eating both of them alive. After they make love for the first time, they tell each other, "I needed that." To them, it's like grasping at a last chance at life.
I suppose I should mention here that Leticia is black. It is an issue and a non-issue at the same time. Hank is a man who has been brought up to be bigoted, but an early exchange with his black neighbour establishes his level of discomfort with that particular role. His relationship with Leticia unfolds in such an unforced manner that he is given to wonder what the whole black-hating argument was all about anyway. You never hear him talking about it, but you can see him begin to build bridges in simple ways. This is not a man who goes through bigotry and emerges on the other side as a tolerant person. This is a man who was just waiting for a chance to sidestep his bigotry altogether, and Leticia simply provided that chance.
It's a quiet, deliberately paced movie, whose silences are as eloquent as its dialogues. Since this is a movie driven not by plot but by character, especially by characters who carry a lot of baggage, it requires the dialogue to convey a lot. That it manages to do so effectively with hardly any long, introspective passages is a thing to be seen to be believed.
The script is an amazing piece of work - it has the kind of depth that you won't see in more than a handful of movies in any year. It would take a good writer reams of paper to describe what some of those simple, precisely written scenes convey. This is the sort of movie any reviewer would hate, because he would have a million things to say about each of the important scenes in the movie and yet have to rein himself in because the viewer's payoff is in figuring it out for himself.
Billy Bob Thornton turns in a marvellously understated performance as Hank. You see in him, a man who has learnt to suppress emotion to the point where he doesn't even know how to express one anymore. And then, as his relationship with Leticia develops, he learns to feel once more. Watching his character evolve through the movie is like watching a baby learn how to walk.
And Halle Berry's performance in this movie - the one that won her a Best Actress Oscar? Let me put it this way: Have you read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead? When Gail Wynand realizes that the statue of Dominique Francon he has in his museum was the one built for the Stoddard Temple, he asks her, "Was the building worthy of the statue?"
And Dominique replies, "The statue was almost worthy of the building."