Monster's Ball (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I suppose almost all hate is self-hatred. Oh, I don't mean the kind of hate you feel for the guy who killed your grandfather or hurt your children, but rather the kind of hate you have for people you haven't met yet. I'm no psychologist, but I suppose that people truly at peace with themselves, people deep-down pleased with their lives and their accomplishments, don't bear a lot of hatred and jealousy for others. Hate burns up out of anger. If you are filled with hate or jealousy, and have nobody specific or nothing specific to be angry about, then you must be angry at your own lot in life, and you externalize that.

That's really what Monster's Ball is about. Billy Bob Thornton is a white racist jailer who has an affair with the black wife of a black man whose execution he supervised (although he is unaware of the connection at first). It's pretty obvious that he's not a very happy man. Although he's a bigot, the person he really hates is his even more bigoted, cruel father. After that, second place would have to go to himself, although I suppose the father really instigated that as well. The pivotal moment for him in the movie is when he sees that he has become his father, finally becomes aware of his own self-loathing, and has to confront his own attitudes. This isn't a simplistic film, however, so don't expect him to become transformed instantly into St Francis after a lifetime of bigotry and ignorance.


Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton have two sex scenes. In the first one, Halle exposes her breasts and most of her buns. Billy Bob shows his butt. (In earlier versions of the film, there were clear shots of Halle's bottom and Billy Bob's cojones.)

Heath Ledger shows most of his butt in the scene with the hooker.

Amber Rules shows her breasts and butt in nearly identical sex scenes with both Billy Bob and Ledger.

In fact, the key to the Oscar-nominated script is its complexity. There are simply no easy solutions, and no characters with white hats. We follow the progress of the half-hearted racist and his black girlfriend, but she's no model of behavior, either. She drinks too much, abuses her son, and has no pity at all for her condemned husband.

There are several parent-child relationships portrayed in the film, and they are all abusive and/or hateful but one. Billy Bob hates his father and his son. Halle abuses her son. The exception? The convicted murderer is shown to be a decent man who treats his son with love and respect. Nothing is simple in this world.

In the end, the black woman overlooks something that hurts her deeply, and stays with the man who hid something from her. The script offers no explanation. Is she that lonely, or afraid of facing the world alone? Does she see that he is changing or is capable of changing? Does she hate herself so much that she doesn't care? Does he feel trapped into that choice? We don't really know.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Audio commentary by director Marc Forster & director of photography Roberto Schaefer

  • Audio commentary by Halle Berry & Billy Bob Thornton and director Marc Forster

  • Deleted Scenes & Outtakes

  • "Making of the Music" featurette

  • Widescreen letterbox format, 2.35:1

Note: the longer version of the famous sex scene (seen in the film festival version) is not in the deleted scenes, nor is it restored to the body of the film in the DVD above

But it is in this version

It's a powerful movie, but keep your kids far away. Don't let young ones be exposed to it at all. They'll have nightmares for weeks. Hell, I'll have nightmares for weeks. It is the apotheosis of the word "intense". The sex scenes are desperate and essentially tragic. The electrocution in shown in some explicit detail. Everyone hates and abuses just about everyone else. The language is rough and hateful. People rarely treat each other with respect.

But for you adults, it's a helluva powerful movie, and uniformly well acted. That's the good news.

The bad news is that misery is piled upon misery, coincidence upon coincidence, in the typical fashion of Southern gothic potboilers. A racist white man falls in love with a black woman. Isn't it enough coincidence when he finds out that he recently walked her ex-husband to the electric chair? Is it a reasonable plot device that they were both abusive parents who caused or may have contributed to the deaths of their sons within the short time frame of this film, and that their stories intersect in other ways? I think the plot sometimes crosses over into soap opera territory, providing an unrealistically high level of misery in a script that is artificially economical and contrived. That works at cross-purposes against the realism of the acting styles and the low-key resolution of the film.

Tuna's Thoughts

You already know about the nudity, and that Halle Berry received Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of poor black trash. Frankly, the entire cast did a tremendous job on this film. Swiss director Marc Forster gave the film a European pace, and a European feel, with simple camera angles, lots of medium and long shots, and a subdued color palette which was effective in setting a somber mood. In short, it was a good piece of film making, although I would have preferred a little more pace.

Major spoilers coming.

Billy Bob Thornton is head of the death squad at a Georgia prison, and is to supervise the electrocution of a black man. He son is part of the squad. The son loses his dinner while escorting the condemned man to the chair. After the execution, Thornton accosts his son in the John, and beats the shit out of him. The day before the execution, we meet Halle Berry, the condemned man's wife, and mother of a very overweight kid. She gives the condemned man hell, goes home to the house she is being evicted from, goes out for some booze, and comes back to beat the shit out of her kid for eating chocolate while she was gone. Meanwhile, we meet Thornton's father, who had the same job Thornton did, and taught Thornton to be a bigot.

The morning after the execution, Thornton tries to throw his son out of the house, but the son pulls a gun on him, then turns it on himself and commits suicide. The film spent about 45 minutes introducing us to these low-life characters, and when Halle Berry's son is run over and killed, I couldn't help but think he might be better off. Then comes the strange twist. What felt for all the world like an anti-death penalty anti bigotry movie tried to convince me that it was a love story about how Thornton and Berry, with the common experience of losing a son, found redemption in each others arms. She stopped drinking, he quit the department of corrections, bought a gas station, put his father in a rest home, and turned into a civil rights worker. I'm sorry, I didn't buy the love story. They did too good a job in the first act convincing me what lowlifes Thornton and Berry were. The IMDB scores, critical reviews, etc say that this film has appeal, but it is largely depressing, and was, for me, slow paced and a flawed concept. Perhaps if they had spent less time convincing me that Berry and Thornton were creeps, they could have helped the pace and made the love story more credible.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 3.5/4, BBC 4/5

  • Oscar-nominated for the screenplay and Halle Berry's performance. Many feel Thornton should have been nominated as well.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDB readers say 7.8/10
  • with their dollars ... Profitable. $4 million budget, $31 million gross, although never in as many as 800 theaters.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+ (both reviewers), but a really depressing C+. A character study in which you hate all the characters. A love story in which you don't care much for either lover. A movie in which the acting is far better than the material they started with.

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