“Is this music all right with you?” Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton, The Man Who Wasn’t There) asks Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry, Swordfish) as she closes the door of Hank’s old black Ford sedan and settles into the front passenger seat. The car looks like a retired police cruiser, which suits Hank.
Just days before he was a department of corrections officer supervising the death row of a Georgia state penitentiary. Just days before he was part of the team that put Leticia’s husband Lawrence (Sean Combs, Made) to death in the electric chair. But Leticia doesn’t know this. She just needs to get to work on time. She can’t afford to lose another waitressing job. An eviction notice already hangs nailed to the screen door of her house. Hank’s country music is all right with her.
The question sounds like first-date chat, but this is neither a date nor the first time she’s taken a ride in Hank’s official-looking black car. He’s been her Good Samaritan once before, under more tragic circumstances, a reluctant Southern gentleman as her white knight in rolling iron. Beneath the question are racial overtones: Do black girls listen to country?
Monster’s Ball has all of the misfortunes of an old country song — and all of the love. The story is soaked in loss, from jobs to lives. But it’s not a tear-jerking melodrama. It’s more tapped into the Southern gothic literary tradition: William Faulkner’s tangled interracial sagas reverberate in the plot with echoes of Tennessee Williams’ suicidal characters. Monster’s Ball shares the same pedigree as independent dramas such as The Apostle (1997) and Thornton’s tour de force as a writer, director and actor, Sling Blade (1996).
Thornton seems to wear the role of Hank as comfortably as an old pair of jeans. It’s no wonder. The Arkansas-born and -bred actor started his artistic career as a drummer in a band that once opened for country music superstar Hank Williams Jr. and was married to black actress Cynda Williams, the romantic lead of his breakout movie as a writer and star, One False Move (1991). He has the raw material to bring Hank to life.
And he does so with all of the mature subtlety of his most recent work. Hank doesn’t require the fantastic physical transformations of body and voice of Sling Blade’s Karl Childers, who baited and hooked a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Thornton. Karl was more a golden-hearted fairy-tale ogre in the guise of a damaged Southern gothic man-child: the stuff of melodrama. Hank is real. Thornton’s portrayal is a work of quiet, mining the same vein as his Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There. But that doesn’t mean there’s no drama in this performance. Thornton has rarely been allowed this much violence — or this much romance.
Which brings us to Berry. Her Leticia is already being widely regarded as her breakthrough as a serious dramatic movie actress, earning her five nominations for Best Actress awards. The attention is well deserved. Berry is Leticia, from her manner of speech to her smallest gesture — the glamorous Hollywood star becomes an unfortunate Southern black woman. Like Thornton, she makes the pathos of her character real, not melodramatic. As does Combs, even throughout his monster’s ball, the last hours a death row inmate spends before he takes his last walk.
First-time screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos and director Marc Forster fashion an honest drama out of material that could have resulted in a Southern-fried soap opera in lesser hands. They deftly handle even their most pathetic, melodramatically prone supporting characters — such as Hank’s ailing daddy Buck (Peter Boyle, Doctor Dolittle), his soft-hearted boy Sonny (Heath Ledger, The Patriot) and Leticia’s son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun), a chocolate-filled Fat Albert — so that they transcend simple tear-jerking.
Beneath the love ballad of Hank and Leticia flows the story and subtext of sons, husbands and wives cursed to never live up to the expectations of their fathers and spouses. Deeper still, Monster’s Ball is about the human condition: Like lesser children of Job, Hank and Leticia suffer the pile of losses dealt to them. But, while her pet bird flutters against the bars of its open cage, they manage to find the only redemption offered to them: love.
E-mail James Keith La Croix at email@example.com.