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Wednesday, July 17, 2002

To us with love and squalor

Monster's Ball

Rating: * * *
Japanese title: Chocolate
Director: Marc Forster
Running time: 111 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

Old folks say the best antidote to summer heat is a ghost story, preferably told by candlelight in a darkened room. The story should be full of intimate, scary details, without gore but containing suitable fatal incidents. Above all, it must thoroughly chill the spine, triggering nightmares to while away the hot, sleepless nights. This summer, I would like to suggest adding "Monster's Ball" (released in Japan as "Chocolate") to any collection of such stories.

News photo
Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton in "Monster's Ball"

Directed by Marc Forster, "Monster's Ball" made history by bringing the first Academy Award for Best Actress to an African-American, Halle Berry. But to link Berry's acting with Hollywood's politically correct conscience would be to do her a grave injustice. With stunning ferocity, she unleashes a performance so raw it's hard to believe it was conducted in front of lights and cameras. Berry turns the viewer into a privileged but uncomfortable voyeur, witness to the kind of physical and spiritual intimacy only a chosen lover should glimpse. And by doing so, she forges a private bond with the audience that's difficult to sever -- even as you're inwardly whispering, "Uh, we don't know each other so you don't have to go this far," you're unable to avert your gaze even for a second.

Berry's intensity adds to the scariness of "Monster's Ball," taking it far beyond the "best and most moving love story of the year" that it's touted as being. Yes, this is a powerhouse tale of love charged by the amazing chemistry Berry has going with co-star Billy Bob Thornton, but it's the kind of love that strips the characters bare and leaves them utterly vulnerable, struggling against fears of loss and failure as they try to grab the elusive threads of happiness with all their strength.

In case you're wondering, the title refers to a British custom of death-row inmates having one wild party on the night before execution; a chunk of info that somehow enhances the ambience of mutual desperation and quiet terror.

Berry plays Leticia, a black waitress raising her obese 11-year-old son. Her husband Laurence (Sean Combs) has been on death row in a Lousiana prison for the past 10 years, and she and their son make a final visit, eight hours before his execution. The corrections officers who supervise his death are Hank Grotowski (Thornton) and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger). Hank is hard, unforgiving and racist, and his own father, Buck (Peter Boyle), was in the same job before retirement.

Three officers living under the same roof, with all the womenfolk dead, has taken a toll on the sensitive Sonny. His relationships with Hank and Buck are, at best, bizarre: Sonny and his father share the same prostitute in the same motel room (though at different times) in the exact same way, though they never discuss it. Buck's favorite pastime is to lie in bed, recalling out loud all the women he had "in my prime."

While the characters start out like stereotypical hard-luck Southerners, the way Hank and Leticia come together and the subsequent need they discover for each other, cancels out the misgivings. Unfueled by romance or sentiment, their love rests on an acute awareness of their mutual unhappiness, and the strong desire for change.

Hank is severely depressed (he habitually vomits in the small hours and then seeks solace in chocolate ice cream at a coffee shop). In Leticia, he sees a chance to redeem himself, to morph from macho bigot to kind, supportive partner. For Leticia's part, she longs for Hank to rub out some of the stifling misery and loneliness of the past decade. What they seek in each other is condensed into a brief dialogue in which Hank asks her what she wants him to do and she wrenchingly, tearfully, replies: "I just . . . want you to make me feel good."

But their fierce determination to unite is unsettling, even to themselves. Hank, for example, must deal with his decision to dump Buck in an old-people's home so Leticia can move in. Meanwhile, Leticia suffers from the double pronged guilt of betraying her husband (with his executioner to boot) and being utterly relieved at starting life anew.

For both, recovery is about coming to terms with their guilt. And though their thoughts are left unspoken, they ponder the price they have to pay for being the survivors of terrible, dysfunctional families. It's this wordless anxiety that defines the film, holding up for us to see the darker, less-explored face of adult love, haunted by old ghosts and past sins.

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