A good deal of Billy Bob Thornton’s on-screen demeanor in the recent The Man Who Wasn’t There remains in his part of the new film Monster’s Ball (Lion’s Gate Films). His weathered face bears the same stolid, pained look, and his eyes still hold a wary fearfulness. But thankfully in this new role Thornton actually sparks a flicker of audience interest.
Hank Grotowski (Thornton) is a simple man who divides his days working in the family business – death row prison guard – and tending to his ailing father (Peter Boyle). Occasionally he treats himself to some chocolate ice cream at a local diner or even a visit to the same hooker his son (Heath Ledger) employs occasionally. His reticent, working-class air is as classic as the racist dreck that spews consistently from his mouth.
After his son slips up on the execution of Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) and his father and grandfather’s disapproval send the young man to his grave, Hank begins to notice the emptiness of his life. At about this time chance throws Hank a curveball and the audience an exercise in the suspension of disbelief. The comely young Leticia Musgrove, who just happens to be the widow of the last person Hank killed, walks into Hank’s diner and offers him a chance to turn his life around.
This opportunity, even when taken, only partially satisfies. Hank’s unbelievably bad parenting has already killed his son, and the circumstances that force a young black woman to rely upon a man involved in her husband’s death exist more in the realm of material need than sudden true love. But like the films The Pledge, In the Bedroom and The Crossing Guard, Monster’s Ball offers only a harsh, macabre view of reality, staying away from Hollywood’s absurdly happy endings and total conflict resolutions.
One of the film’s most pleasurable aspects comes from Berry (Swordfish) and Thornton’s performances. Their relationship and individual characters are funny, pathetic and uncomfortably true.
Peter Boyle’s (Doctor Dolittle) performance as Hank’s father incites the sort of rage and disgust in the audience that demonstrates his abilities. Heath Ledger (The Patriot) hardly has time to make an impression, but his brief appearance on screen includes a grotesque, impressive death scene.
Director Marc Forster’s hand generally remains unnoticed, but his treatment of Berry and Thornton’s sex scenes are overtly and incongruously artsy. Although Forster opts to let the film’s death scenes speak for themselves, his treatment of sex makes the sex scene Monster’s Ball’s most discomforting moments. The shots are short, nonlinear and taken from obscure angles that leave most of the screen black.
Of course, sex scenes should not be the only reason to see a movie, even though it might have accounted for Showgirls box office take. But when the protagonist’s redemption cannot satisfy, you would hope something would.