In the unpredictable and compelling "Monster's Ball," a series of jaw-dropping calamities brings together Billy Bob Thornton's Hank Grotowski, a Georgia Department of Corrections officer, and Halle Berry's Leticia Musgrove, an impoverished black woman. At first these incidents seem melodramatic in the extreme, but as the risk-taking film unfolds, it becomes clear that without such a jumble of horrendous events their lives could never have otherwise intersected in any significant way, even in the so-called New South.
Hank is a man of few words shaped profoundly by his father Buck (Peter Boyle), a corrections officer before him and a proud racist and unrepentant chauvinist. In the Grotowskis' world, women are weak and good for only one thing, and the wives of both father and son are buried in the family plot not far from the family's farmhouse. Hank's son Sonny (Heath Ledger) has just started following in his father and grandfather's footsteps but hasn't the stomach for the job. He even is friendly to the young sons of the black man (Mos Def) who owns the neighboring farm.
By the time Hank offers a lift to Leticia and her seriously overweight son (Coronji Calhoun), who has apparently been struck by a hit-and-run driver, both are experiencing their lives being turned upside down a couple of times over. Because Leticia is a radiantly beautiful young woman and Hank a trim, fit man with a low-key charisma, is it any wonder that they will be mutually attracted and will attempt to drown their pain in sex? And what if that sex should yield to love?
A fable of absolution and redemption, "Monster's Ball" is a dauntingly ambitious work. Amid spare dialogue and taut construction, writers Milo Addica and Will Rokos nonetheless have provided Thornton and Berry with demanding and wide-ranging roles. Hank is but the latest of Thornton's strikingly taciturn characters in a whole string of movies, but for Berry, Leticia represents a big-screen breakthrough, coming on the heels of her highly lauded turn in HBO's "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge." Indeed, Berry combines a dazzling beauty and a soaring talent, just as Dandridge did.
Boyle is equally indelible as the hateful, destructive Buck, a man whose malevolent strength of character remains undimmed by his physical decline. Sean Combs is remarkable as a man struggling to maintain his dignity in the face of death, and Ledger expresses the torment of the conflicted Sonny perfectly; it was a smart move for an actor whose star is ascending so swiftly to commit to a supporting role in so venturesome a project as this. "Monster's Ball" is a stylized work of shifting, brooding moods, stunningly photographed in drab hues by Roberto Schaefer, and it benefits from a powerfully evocative score by Thad Spencer, Chris Beaty and Richard Werbowenko.
What Hank and Leticia have experienced in the backwoods of Georgia is akin to subjects of Greek tragedy. Yet they have the chance, especially by sticking together, of letting go of a wrenching past and starting life anew. But will they have sufficient strength to muster the forgiveness, especially of themselves, and acceptance to accomplish this?
As in his first feature, "Everything Put Together," director Marc Forster displays a potent gift for creating a distinctive world from which his key figures experience a profound alienation and struggle to regain their balance. In the first film, a young mother is shunned because her miscarriage stains the dull perfection of her upscale suburban neighborhood. In "Monster's Ball" it is the burden of the past, both immediate and distant, that Hank and Leticia must break free of if they are to survive, either together or apart. Enigmatic, elliptical and mesmerizing, "Monster's Ball" invites myriad responses and interpretations.
MPAA rating: R, for strong sexual content, language and violence. Times guidelines: This film is too intense for children, even if accompanied by parents or guardians.
Billy Bob Thornton ... Hank Grotowski
Halle Berry ... Leticia Musgrove
Peter Boyle ... Buck Grotowski
Heath Ledger ... Sonny Grotowski
Sean Combs ... Lawrence Musgrove
Mos Def ... Ryrus Cooper
Coronji Calhoun ... Tyrell Musgrove
A Lions Gate Films release of a Lee Daniels Entertainment production. Director Marc Forster. Producer Lee Daniels. Executive producers Mark Urman, Michael Burns, Michael Paseornek. Screenplay Milo Addica, Will Rokos. Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer. Editor Matt Chesse. Music Thad Spencer, Chris Beaty and Richard Werbowenko for Asche & Spencer. Costumes Frank Fleming. Production designer Monroe Kelly. Art director Leonard Spears. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
At selected theaters.