Near the start of Monster’s Ball, 12-year-old Tyrell Musgrove (Coronji Calhoun) visits his father on death row. Lawrence (Sean Combs) is scheduled to die that night. Tyrell asks why. “Because I’m a bad man,” his father tells him, gazing steadily into his son’s devastated face. “I want you to know something,” Lawrence says, leaning forward. “You ain’t me. You’re the best of what I am, that’s what you are.” Lawrence’s wife, Leticia (Halle Berry) is not impressed. She moves from the barred window where she’s been standing, trying not to see this poignant father-son scene. As she sits next to Tyrell, her cigarette smoke rises slowly. She just can’t warm up to Lawrence, even with her boy watching and hoping. After 11 years of visiting her man in a cell, she’s ready for an ending.
But it won’t come easily. Even after Lawrence’s execution—which the film displays in aesthetically arranged detail, intercut with Leticia brushing her teeth—she is haunted by the memory of her “bad” man. She’s unable to move on, not least because she sees in Tyrell, specifically, in his obesity, a lack of control that reminds her of Lawrence, a weakness that frightens her. Working as a waitress in rural Georgia and about to lose her house because she can’t make the rent, she deals daily with poverty, racism, and meanness. When she comes home to find Tyrell’s been sneaking chocolate bars again, she beats him, mainly out of fear for what’s in store for him. “I know,” she says later, in a moment of regret and confusion, that if you’re “a black man in America, you can’t be like that.”
What she knows only makes Leticia’s life harder. Looking for her own forms of escape, she drinks too much and works too hard, frets about her boy, and eventually, falls into an unlikely relationship with Hank (Billy Bob Thornton). At first, this plot turn looks crazy, except that you’ve been following the parallel tracks of the characters’ lives, and so you know (even if they don’t) that they are meant to find one another. Slowly, though, the film develops a strange logic for the pairing, out of mutual need that at times becomes horrific. Monster’s Ball leans heavily on Southern Gothic torment and metaphor (for instance, birdcage images to suggest, you know, feelings of imprisonment), as well as bizarre, if historically framed, circumstances, reminiscent of those conjured by Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor.
One of these circumstances is “coincidental,” in that way that instructional fictions tend to be: unknown to Leticia, Hank is one of the guards who oversaw Lawrence’s execution. He’s also a lifelong racist, but as the film has it, he’s not a bad man, not cruel or disagreeable by nature, but a victim of training, by his father, Buck (Peter Boyle), a retired death row guard. When Hank and Buck exchange the words they do—in their bleak living room, the close space of the bathroom—the air between them seems to grow thinner by the second (this tension is finely exacerbated by Thornton and Boyle, who flawlessly underplay their parts).
As if this recipe of dysfunction isn’t enough, the film—directed by Swiss-born Marc Forster and written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos—folds in yet another layer, in Hank’s son, Sonny (Heath Ledger). He has also taken up the family business, but hates it like poison, can’t find in himself the strength (or hatefulness, as is visible in Buck) to be hard. Not only does Sonny make mistakes during the trial run (which involves the black guard on duty playing the condemned), but also collapses on the way to the electric chair with Lawrence. Here you glimpse of Hank’s potential compassion for Lawrence, whose last minutes of life were obviously disturbed, turned into furious invective against his child. Throwing Sonny up against the wall, Hank is himself out of control: “You’re like a goddamn woman! You’re like your fucking mother!” That this tirade echoes Buck’s sentiment about Hank’s mother (who killed herself years ago) is hardly accidental. For Hank, as for Buck—and Leticia, for that matter—vulnerability is terrifying.
The parallel is obvious, neat and awful: Sonny, like Tyrell, both reflects and repulses his parent, as well as burdened with all kinds of meaning, from regional and familial legacies to contemporary psychological insights. That’s not to say that the sons are the film’s only symbolic devices: while Lawrence is on his way to execution, Leticia and Ty watch a television show about skydiving, complete with hurtling point-of-view shots; longtime smoker Buck is currently tied to an oxygen tank; and Hank and Sonny use the same prostitute, whom they take the same way, from behind. When Sonny asks her to “get something to eat” with him, she smiles ruefully, not even answering the invitation: theirs is not a relationship involving face-to-face conversation. You can’t miss it: everyone is in some form of freefall, running out of breath and time, incapable of intimacy or compassion, that is, weakness.
Lucky for Hank and Leticia, all these other characters are set up to service their trajectory toward one another. Sonny, for one, models tolerance for Hank, resisting the example of his father and grandfather, absorbing their hatred rather than projecting it back outward like they do. When he befriends the two sons of a black neighbor, Ryrus (played by hiphop artist Mos Def), Hank is appalled, chasing the boys off with a shotgun. Predictably, however, Hank will learn a hard lesson from Sonny. And if Hank can’t articulate this lesson—or appreciate its cost—he does undergo a fairly miraculous change of heart that emerges more clearly from movie conventions (the kind that allow viewers to feel all right about themselves) than it does from his own nasty background.
That this lesson comes to involve Leticia is the film’s most elaborate contrivance, allowing “catharsis,” i.e., the raw and desperate sex scene that everyone’s been talking about, shot from behind furniture and doorframes, to indicate, again, their mutual desire for escape. Premised on tragedy (two, actually), their liaison is about shared pain and need, more than desire, but it eases into a tender relationship that actually makes sense, if only the set-up for it hadn’t been so overcooked. It doesn’t help that their first night together is introduced with clunkily metaphorical dialogue: Hank and Leticia sit in his car outside her place. He asks, “You know when you feel like you can’t breathe? You can’t get up from inside yourself, really?” She nods, barely. “Do you want to come inside?”
And yet . . . in spite of its symbolic inelegance and familiar plot (wherein the not-really-so-bad man is redeemed by his love for the girl he hardly “deserves”), Monster’s Ball provides extraordinary moments for its actors. These do not include that much-remarked sex scene, which, for all its manifest “daring,” is not nearly so effective as Berry’s quieter work with 10-year-old Calhoun, or especially, the film’s final surprising moments, when she essentially acts a scene by herself, even though she shares the frame with Thornton. As Leticia makes a silent deal with herself in order, at last, to move on, her story comes into focus. And in the end, it is more compelling than those of the various bad men who have made it so difficult.