‘Monster’s Ball’ cold melodrama, strong script, performances

Most movies spend the first half of the movie working up to the second in which the real action and drama begins. Monster’s Ball, the new Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton movie, does the opposite. The first half is loaded with melodrama (from suicide to capital punishment to racism to obesity) while the second half takes it slow, displaying the aftershocks of such developments in the lives of its two main characters.

Berry stars as a black woman with an overweight son and death penalty-sentenced husband. Her love interest, played by Thornton, by contrast, is a racist, hick-ish, white-supremacist. He, of course, comes to accept blacks and actually wants to protect them, or Berry rather.

Visually, the movie is very interesting, saturated with lime green and harsh yellows, reminiscent of both Trans and The Limey from a few years ago. The cinematography, setting, direction, and mood are interesting without calling too much attention to themselves. Musical ambient accompaniment sets the right tone.

The biggest contradiction in the movie, it seems, is this tone, which is very stoic, unemotional, almost cold as compared to the plot, which is extremely melodramatic. No movie in history probably has so much stuff going on, so many after-school special type issues, so much, well, drama.

With so much going on, you would expect a bombastic, Titanic-like score, or noticeably dramatic direction, but instead you get harsh, cold colors and eerie ambient music. This is a slow-paced film trapped in a melodramatic script’s body.

Berry recently has been getting much Oscar and critical attention for the performance, and, in all honesty, it’s quite spectacular, probably the best of the year. Watch in one scene as she confronts Thornton’s extremely racist father (the seeds of his own racism). Her emotions range from nervous, to confused, to angry in a matter of seconds.

The ending almost redeems the film from the melodrama it holds in throughout. Here, the director realizes his fallacy in trying to sugar-coat the relationship between Thornton and Berry. If one sees this as a positive race-relations film, one would be sorely mistaken.

The Thornton-Berry relationship is dysfunctional, each attached to the other only to survive. Thornton feels bad about being a racist, but in the end still seems to feel as though he’s better than Berry (i.e. blacks). His whole “I want to protect you” shenanigans seem patronizing, yet Berry accepts them. She has no finances and Thornton gives her a free ride.

For some time it seems the movie thinks they’re in love, but then, the final scene shows just how lost and confused these characters still are.

Albeit melodramatic, it is still a fine picture.

February 15, 2002


The Miami Hurricane

Student newspaper at the University of Miami

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