“Monster’s Ball” is the derisive term the prison guards use for the gruesome ceremonies the night before a death row prisoner is to be executed. In the movie of that name, Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), one of those guards, clings to his hatred and racism as a way of distancing himself from his loneliness and misery. He throws two black boys off his property, even though they are his son’s friends. He cannot even allow himself to agree to call a condemned man’s child just before execution to tell him that his father will not be allowed to say goodbye to him. And when his son (Heath Ledger), now a third generation death row guard, gets sick while escorting the prisoner to the electric chair, Hank brutally assaults him physically and emotionally. Although it is clear that it is Hank’s own vulnerability and isolation that terrifies him, the attack and its aftermath are horrifying.
Meanwhile, Leticia (Halle Berry), the condemned prisoner’s wife, is desperate. Her son drowns his misery in candy and is very overweight. She has lost her waitress job, her car has broken down, and she is about to lose her house.
Hank and Leticia see their lives as hopelessly bleak, and they get worse as unspeakable tragedy strikes them both. In a way, the tragedy frees them. Having lost everything, there is no longer any reason to try to hold on to old notions and old fears.
The artificiality of the plot is a distraction, at times seeming like a bizarre version of the old Hollywood imperative that the romantic couple has to “meet cute.” But Thornton and Berry are magnificent. Berry deservedly won an Oscar for her brave and vulnerable performance and Thornton matches her every step of the way. The dignity and poignancy of both performances is deeply moving. Sean Combs is outstanding in his brief appearance as Leticia’s husband, demonstrating great dignity and a range of emotion as he prepares for his execution.
Parents should know that this is an extremely brutal movie. It includes an explicit execution, a suicide by gunshot, the death of a child, and extremely explicit sexual situations, including prostitution. There are very disturbing family situations involving emotional and physical abuse. Characters use very strong language, and they drink and smoke.
Families who see this movie should talk about how people become racist and how we find help when we need it. Do you agree with what Hank decided about his father? What is Leticia thinking at the very end of the movie? What do you think will happen next?
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Sling Blade, which Thornton wrote, directed, and starred in.