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On Nov. 11, 2001, Lionsgate premiered drama Monster’s Ball at the AFI Festival. The film went on to earn an Oscar at the 74th Academy Awards in the best actress category for Halle Berry’s performance. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Monster’s Ball, which received its world premiere as the closing selection of this year’s AFI Fest, will never be mistaken for that other Monsters movie currently delighting family audiences.
Tough and uncompromising, Marc Forster’s dark dirge of a Southern drama starts off bleak and ends with the merest glimmer of hope.
But thanks to a pair of remarkable performances by Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry, this tricky sell for Lions Gate could have a silver lining in the form of Oscar nominations.
The commendably spare script, by Milo Addica and Will Rokos, had been around for half a dozen years before it finally got the green light from Lions Gate and it’s not difficult to see why it took so long given the stubborn legacy of brutality that serves as its underlying theme.
It is first revealed in our introduction to the three generations of males representing the Grotowski family — ailing, racist patriarch Buck (Peter Boyle), son Hank (Thornton) and his son, the more sensitive Sonny (Heath Ledger) — whose lives have been defined as corrections officers at the same rural Georgia prison.
As head of the death team, it’s Hank’s responsibility to oversee preparations for executions, and his ritual approach to the job at hand covers ground familiar to those viewers of Dead Man Walking and The Green Mile.
Things get more interesting at home, where Sonny does something that will ultimately snap the sins-of-the-father cycle that would have otherwise doomed future Grotowski generations.
A twist of fate will soon bring Hank in contact with Leticia Musgrove (Berry), the widow of a condemned man (Sean Combs) who had spent his last hours in the company of Hank and his son.
It’s difficult to say more without revealing the quiet surprises of Addica and Roko’s carefully delineated character sketch of a screenplay. Given the deliberate scarcity of action and dialogue, the actors are forced to rely heavily upon their interior lives, and more than deliver the goods.
As a man who has kept his emotions locked away in solitary confinement for most of his life, Thornton, as also demonstrated in The Man Who Wasn’t There, manages to convey volumes while seemingly doing very little.
Berry, meanwhile, as a woman whose life has dealt her more than her share of devastating blows, digs deeply, mining one of the strongest performances of her career.
The collective soul-baring, which also extends to some very naked coupling, lends the film its raw, stirring power, and that less-is-more approach to the characterizations also extends to the fine supporting work done by Boyle and erstwhile hip-hop stars Combs and Mos Def as neighborhood mechanics, who are both effectively introspective.
Having coaxed such fine, underplayed performances from his cast, one wishes Swiss filmmaker Forster had implemented a less purposeful directing style that would have given the heavy subject matter a little breathing room.
Instead, all the underscored dreariness serves to make Monster’s Ball more of an endurance test than an oddball but affecting voyage of self-discovery. — Michael Rechtshaffen, originally published on Nov. 13, 2001
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