"A portrait captures a face better than a photograph," says Lawrence Musgrove, a murderer on death row, as he sketches the face of the guard who will lead him to the electric chair. "It takes a human being to see a human being."
Few characters in Monster's Ball seem human. They treat each other cruelly and themselves worse, poisoning themselves with cigarettes, alcohol, food and sex. This wrenching depiction of pain is brilliantly acted and directed with an artistic sensibility that's unsparing and yet tender. The film would be relentlessly depressing if not for the potential screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos see for redemption in those of us who still can recognize another human in need of kindness.
Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) is the head guard of the prison, an angry man who lashes out at his sensitive son Sonny (Heath Ledger) and prevents Lawrence from calling his young son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun) to say goodbye. Hank's father Buck (Peter Boyle) is an unmitigated racist who ghoulishly collects newspaper clippings about Lawrence's execution.
Women are missing from this household of three men, driven to suicide or flight. Here, the worst insult possible is to be compared to one of those absent women. "You're like your goddamn mother," Hank growls at Sonny for collapsing during Lawrence's walk to the chair, overcome with sympathetic nausea.
When a shared tragedy brings together Hank and the condemned prisoner's widow Leticia (Halle Berry), a child abuser who favours miniature bottles of Jack Daniels, it seems impossible that these two miserable people can make any connection.
Director Mark Forster quickly draws us into this world of misery and cruelty, whose inhabitants are cut off from one another. He puts obstructions between the viewer and the characters. We see them through the moving blades of an overhead fan, in the distorted reflection of a make-up mirror, through the doorway to another room or the florescent sign for a diner.
The wonderful stillness of this world lets us create our own interpretation of the scene and characters' motivation. When Leticia brings Tyrell for an emotional last visit with his dad, we stay in the visiting room after everyone else leaves, alone with the smoke curling up from her abandoned cigarette. The pauses in conversation and between scenes only emphasize the awful pain these people are going through. They are the spaces where the emotion pools.
The acting is phenomenal and unflinching. Thornton and Berry portray people so worn by life they are numb to emotion, without losing interest or sympathy. We come to understand why they behave so badly toward those they love, even if we can't quite forgive it. Berry's performance is raw and real, and so vulnerable the movie turns voyeuristic. Even superstar Combs is understated, believable and wholly sympathetic, and Ledger proves he's more than a pretty boy.
It's hard to say more without giving away the precious kernels of the plot. Be sure to bring tissues to this heart-wrenching film. It's worth ever tear you shed.