In Roland Joffe's great 1986 drama, The Mission, South American Portuguese conquistador Robert De Niro kills his brother after indulging a jealous fit and challenging the younger man to a duel. The rage cooled and returned to his senses, De Niro's character knows an agony of remorse from which he can find no sanctuary. In desperation to make a true of act of contrition, De Niro joins a band of Jesuit missionaries trying to protect the very Indians De Niro has heretofore endeavored to murder and enslave. Some critics have found in Marc Forster's current Monster's Ball, a comparable search for redemption. I am not among their number. There are reasons to see this movie, but the deft execution of its theme is not one of them.
Written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos, Monster's Ball is the story of Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and his improbable relationship with Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry). Hank is a virulent white racist who works as a guard at the state penitentiary in George (actually shot in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola). Leticia is a black waitress, whose husband, Lawrence (Sean "Puffy" Combs in a cameo appearance), is on Angola's death row for murder.
Hank comes from a line of prison guards. His disabled father Buck (Peter Boyle) was also an Angola guard, and so is Hank's twentysomething son Sonny (Heath Ledger). The Grotowskis inhabit a distinctly male world. All three men live under the same roof. Young Sonny isn't married. Hank and Buck are divorced, and both speak of their former wives with withering, not to say indecent, contempt. At the outset, Hank's and Sonny's only female contact seems to be with the same prostitute (Amber Rules), and both of them couple with her so hastily and crudely and with so little apparent pleasure, we haven't a clue why either bothers.
A truly estimable cast provides the primary motive for watching this film. Berry, in particular, is dazzling. Her breakdown after suffering the second of back-to-back traumatic losses is as affecting as acting can get. Thornton and Boyle, meanwhile, return effectively to territory they've explored earlier in their careers, Thornton to his breakthrough role in Carl Franklin's One False Move and Boyle to his own breakthrough as the title character in John Avildsen's Joe.
But aside from the worthy performances, the parts of this picture that work best mostly have to do with Leticia. A woman with little education and only marginal employment skills, she struggles to survive after Lawrence goes to prison. As we meet her she is futilely trying to fight being evicted from a home she can no longer afford. All of these elements ring true and serve to remind us that the victims of lawlessness include the families of those who commit crimes. As a telling visual metaphor establishes when a smoldering cigarette continues to pollute a room after the smoker has departed, the stink of consequences lingers long after the fire of violence has flamed out.
Leticia's relationship with Tyrell (New Orleans' own Caronji Calhoun), her sadly obese 11-year-old son, also proves convincing. Tyrell soothes his understandably neurotic anxiety with candy bars. Leticia loves her son, but she hates that he's fat, and a scene in which she beats him after discovering his stash of chocolate is harrowing and piercingly sad for mother and child alike.
The storytelling is not nearly so agile, however, when the focus turns to the Grotowskis. Small things nettle us needlessly. Why does a grown man like Sonny number two boys in their early teens among his closest friends? Does the picture have to make such an elaborate red herring of Lawrence's jailhouse drawings? And doesn't the plot contrive too shamelessly when it makes Hank both the guard in charge of Lawrence's last hours and the passerby who rushes Tyrell and Leticia to the hospital after an accident?
Bigger things aggravate even more. Buck's racism is so devoid of subtlety it loses its menace. And Hank's daring to call a fellow guard a "nigger" seems unlikely to be tolerated by either the victim or the system. More important, where does Sonny come from? Having grown up with Buck and Hank as his familial and professional mentors, where does he learn racial tolerance? Most important, wherein lie the seeds of Hank's amazing transformation after suffering tragedy in his own life?
We want to believe that people can change so completely, but Monster's Ball shows us nothing in Hank's emotional and spiritual background that explains his decision to quit his job or suggests his own hour of need will lead him to seek comfort in Leticia's embrace. Hank is not only despicably racist; he also seems to have a pathological hatred of women. In short, this picture's redemption lite lets Hank off way too easily and without anything approaching a worthy act of contrition, lest, (shudder!) we are to see this in his involvement with a beautiful woman just because she is black.