Monster's Ball

(2001) *** 1/2 R
111 min. Lions Gate. Director: Marc Forster. Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Sean 'Diddy' Combs.

In a year rife with tales of obsession and trauma in the wake of death (like The Pledge and In the Bedroom), the achievement of Marc Forster's Monster's Ball stands in impressive relief. Like most 2001 films, Monster's Ball fails to make the leap from "very good" to "great," but it does work its way under the skin with clever insinuation.

To accept Monster's Ball, audiences will have to accept classically contrived twists of fate, but to his credit, Forster pulls off the conceits of the original screenplay by Milo Addica and Will Rokos. Without giving away the real twists, suffice it to say that, following the execution of a death-row inmate, corrections officer Billy Bob Thornton accidentally finds love with Halle Berry, the widow of the man he killed.

Even this essential premise is admittedly contrived (and there's more), but Forster emphasizes the slow development of the relationship through two sterling leading performances. Forster mostly stays out of the way; he establishes a tone both somber and wry, quietly allowing the audience to discover for itself the thematic resonance of parallel characters and the mostly subtle commentary on American racial attitudes. His eye and ear for depicting character detail are also strong, particularly in observing their habits and addictions.

The film also has the idea of generations and family legacy on its mind, depicting sons reacting to graceful or dangerous paternal precedents. Thornton's racist father is played by Peter Boyle with a glint of his now patented rough charm to complicate his character's repellent nature, while Heath Ledger credibly essays Thornton's disappointed, well-intentioned son. Meanwhile, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun) subsists in the shadow of his repentant murderer father (played by a surprisingly sturdy Sean "P-Diddy" Combs), and mother Berry struggles, too desperately, to keep her son on the right track.

This kind of desperation is at the core of the film. Forster and his cast depict desperate need throughout, though it resides beneath sea level for most of the film and only occasionally bursts to the surface. The filmmakers treat this need as both a tragic flaw and a hope of salvation, which typifies Forster's thoughtful, unconventional treatment of his wounded characters. Audiences will fairly quibble with the conveniences and severed threads of plot, but Forster earns the requisite slack by assuredly guiding this haunting, lyrical film.

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