*Monster's Ball (R)
Risking every Deep South, Faulknerian stereotype about racism, rednecks, skeletons in the closet and man's inhumanity to man, it's a miracle that Monster's Ball turns out to be such an intriguing film. Chalk it up to two things: 1) a Swedish director (Marc Forster) who is able to explore Southern stereotypes as a cool observer, and 2) the astonishing acting duo of Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry.
Thornton is Hank, second in a line of three male corrections officers including his hateful, old racist father, Buck (Peter Boyle), and his "weak" son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), who just isn't cut out for the job of overseeing executions. Berry is Leticia, wife of Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs), a man awaiting his execution in the state penitentiary, and mother of a sweet, grossly overweight little boy, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun).
The first half of the film involves the grueling wait for the execution. It's slow and agonizing, but the liberation of the second half comes swiftly. Sonny and Leticia, who, at this point, know nothing of each other but have both suffered recent violent tragedy, come together first in a night of desperate sexual need (depicted in unusually graphic, nude scenes), eventually becoming friends and lovers. Monster's Ball avoids tedium by giving real substance to both Sonny and Leticia. It is their individual survival we're rooting for in the end, not the triumph of their interracial romance.
Berry, deglamorized completely, plays Leticia with quiet desperation and raw emotion. Thornton's Hank holds back, shielding his emotions somewhere behind those dark brown eyes, but slowly opening up. Their dance onscreen is real and natural. Both deserve Oscar nominations, though only Berry ended up with one. And director Forster and his screenwriters, Milo Addica and Will Rokos, deserve a special citation for best movie ending of the year.
Monster's Ball fumbles in the first half by including sex scenes with a hooker that stated the obvious and were unnecessary. But overall, it's a raw, emotional triumph.