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[whitespace] 'Monster's Ball'
Photograph by Jeanne Louise Bulliard

Death Takes a Holiday Death-row guard Billy Bob Thornton puts the moves on Halle Berry, the widow of an executed man, in 'Monster's Ball.'

The Hot Squat

Billy Bob Thornton romances Halle Berry in Deep South of 'Monster's Ball'

By Richard von Busack

ANY FILM that starts with someone puking is bound to go downhill from there. The catchy opening of Monster's Ball prefaces the troubled morning of a death-row prison guard in the Deep South. Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) he's named. His latest task: execute a sensitive con, Lawrence (Sean "P. Diddy" Combs), in the electric chair. The execution is also the first assignment for Hank's son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), who has joined his dad as a guard, but Sonny turns out to be too meek for the trade. He pukes, too, but isn't macho enough to hide it. After the breach between the son and father opens, the newly isolated Hank begins a relationship with Leticia (Halle Berry), the widow of the man he executed. However, since Leticia doesn't know about her new lover's involvement in pulling the switch, it is actually Hank's poisonously racist father, Buck (Peter Boyle), who threatens their happiness.

Swiss director Marc Forster misses many of the cues that a native-born Southerner would have picked up. Luckily, his direction isn't all bad. There's simplicity in the silent parts of the film and in the Soderbergh-like use of natural light and locations. Throughout this often agonizingly unreal film, subtle moments threaten to burst out. Most notable of these is a love scene between Thornton and Berry that goes further than you expect and is more tentative and passionate than could be hoped for. But I'm describing 10 minutes of film here.

The second-act hubbub arrives as shrill as a calliope. The dramatic confrontation between Buck and Leticia serves as the point of the drama, and it couldn't have been acted more bluntly. Does an actor as sizable as Boyle need a metal walker and a tank of oxygen for props? We symbol fans know it's not emphysema he's got, it's racism--it's in his lungs, like asbestos. Monster's Ball's too-much highlight (and this film dwelleth in "too-much" territory) comes with Buck's shock/horror confidence to Leticia that he used to break the color barrier hissownsef: "Ya ain't a man till ya split dark oak!"

The key for scripting a succès d'estime: Take a not very controversial subject and treat it with the maximum amount of sordidness, to make it seem more vital. That's what screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rukos have done. Hard-edged moments abound: scenes showing a hooker shared by both father and son, the vomiting sequence and the sizzling execution of Combs' Lawrence. And still Monster's Ball is a naive ballad of miscegenation. The film descends into the fury of American racism, but ultimately, it softens everything it touches. The questions Monster's Ball raises get settled with risible ease--if we all just sat on a porch and ate ice cream together, we'd all get along. The thing is, we're already eating ice cream together, and racial relations are just as miserable as ever. Monster's Ball is a well-intended failure, but the film deserves some contempt for taking the complex and rendering it childishly simple.

Monster's Ball (R; 108 min.), directed by Marc Forster, written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos, photographed by Roberto Schaefer and starring Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry and Peter Boyle, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the January 24-30, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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