Ball's a belle

Halle Berry has received a fair amount of critical acclaim and awards consideration for her lead performance in Monster's Ball, and it's definitely an attention-grabbing turn. As Georgia cocktail waitress Letecia Musgrove, saddled with an overweight preteen son and a husband on death row, Berry cooks up exasperation, despair, rage and intoxication, and when she strikes up a romance late in the film, affection and passion join the dish.

But though Berry ranges through the subtler emotions with grace, she blares the big notes. The actress squanders her energy in smoking, waving a cigarette about in a self-conscious, actorly way, and she seems overly mannered when delivering her lines in regional dialect; her "he gone"s and "I'm fittin' to"s clank like a cracked bell.

Then again, Monster's Ball has a fair supply of false notes for its actors to hit. Directed by relative newcomer Marc Foster from a script by novices Milo Addica and Will Rokos, Monster's Ball rests its narrative in two milieus that have been done to death in motion pictures— prison and the racist south.

As Letecia's husband (flatly played by Sean "P. Diddy" Combs) heads to the electric chair, Foster draws the details of the last walk with a meticulousness that'll look all the more ponderous to audiences who have seen Dead Man Walking and The Green Mile.

Meanwhile, the casual bigotry and the well-meaning paternalism of Georgia good ol' boys get trotted out for the umpteenth time, which means Billy Bob Thornton gets trotted out for the umpteenth time.

Thornton plays Hank Grotowski, a hard-bitten man whose father (played by Peter Boyle) is even tougher and whose son (Heath Ledger) isn't quite flinty enough. All three Grotowskis have served as prison guards, and all have been brought up to be aggressively cold to women and blacks. But the cycle is breaking down with the youngest Grotowski, who upsets his father with the compassion he shows

toward Letecia's doomed husband.

After the electrocution, the lives of the Grotowskis and the Musgroves are knocked around by various tragedies and coincidences, throwing Hank and Letecia together (though, at first, neither is aware of their death row connection). Their mutual brokenness leads to a mutual fascination, which culminates in an erotic interlude that Foster films with all the subtlety of a Zalman King production... although King likely wouldn't have been so pretentious as to cut to jarring close-ups of a fluttering caged bird during the deed.

Despite the choppy style, the stale setting, and the occasional scenery-chewing, Monster's Ball comes together down the stretch, thanks to a few Foster choices which pay off. He has Berry and Thornton, when they're together, lit in such a way that their skin tones even out, and become indistinguishable. It's a sweet visual signifier for racial reconciliation in a movie that often seems unsure of what it wants to say about the state of race relations (and that, it could be argued, falls into the tired pattern of having a white person be the hero because of what he does to bridge the gap).

Foster's smartest move, though, was hiring Thornton. He may be a predictable choice to play a troubled southerner, but his performance comes from the same aware, plugged-in inner space that he's been visiting for the past year's worth of films. Seething with barely concealed rage in the first half of the picture, Thornton's Hank gets jarred out of himself when a death in the family forces him to re-evaluate everything he thought he knew about how the world works. While Berry is flailing about, Thornton stands still, arms out from his sides in a defensive posture that becomes more open as the story idles to a quiet, poignant stop.

It's as though Foster told Thornton and only Thornton what Monster's Ball is really about. Surfaces aside, the film is not about the inhumanity of the death penalty or about deeply ingrained prejudices. It's about a man who suddenly discovers that he's loved, despite decades spent cultivating hate. It's about how that revelation changes him faster than he expected, and how he attempts to reconcile with the cosmos. And the key to the success of the film— when it succeeds— is that Thornton lets those changes show in his eyes and his stance, not in a string of speeches and fidgets.