Ever since I watched Monster’s Ball in 2018 (and then re-watched it in 2019), its naturalistic expression of two lives caught in the crosshairs of personal and eventually interpersonal grief never left me. It shouldn’t, given its classic status as a dramatic work of art that won accolades galore, particularly highlighting the crescent of Halle Berry’s storied career. Its major source of generating empathy and compassion is its original screenplay which is so restrained in the exploration of pain and suffering: it’s almost novelistic. That, on top of the performances and direction by Marc Forster makes it beautifully integrate two seemingly disparate but emotionally tangible lives. These are two people who are distanced by the commonplace way of life itself, in a sea of millions per se where their paths never cross and there’s nothing to indicate that it should be otherwise. However, as they occupy a small town and maybe fate had in store for them an unlikely union, they meet, extricated from the common thread that binds them till the very end. We as viewers are given the pieces of the puzzle, to make us privy to the harsh realities of their working class consciousness.
Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry) give a whole new meaning to the idea that ‘opposites attract’, or even a ‘meet cute’, because nothing is linear in Monster’s Ball. Neither are they in the flush of youth. Most importantly, they are on opposite sides of the social/racial spectrum. Hank is a prison guard overlooking the last moments of an African-American death row inmate Laurence Musgrove (Sean Combs) and his physical stance shows us a man burdened by his fated position in the prison complex that once fended his father’s work life. Nothing suggests he is happy. Why should he be, given his line of work? He is just another facilitator of the law. Even then he ensures the last moments of his current ward are dignified and restrained before death eventually calls him out to the electric chair. His son Sonny (Heath Ledger) too is united with him in the line of duty. Grotowski Sr. only lives by the book. Grotowski Jr. extends an extra hand of succour in a set-up where listless and dispassionate delivery of executions have always been the norm. There is friction between both owing to the way they view truths of life. A generational gap divides yet intertwines them, signifying their unity in terms of both professional and familial relationships.
Leticia too has her chips on her shoulder; they are more glaringly obvious. Her racial status, compounded by her husband Laurence’s inevitable fate, has made her hardened and years of suffering and a dead end life as a waitress looking after their only child clearly reflects in her last meeting with the man she may have once loved and cherished. We are never given the nature of his crime or if this is another instance of a minor felony getting the hard end of the law owing to racial considerations alone. All we know is that not even a trace of pain or gullibility shows in her body language or biting words, at least at face value.
She is actually both in pain and gullible now that he is dying, but like human nature dictates, she puts up a front and is tired of all false notions of hope. It is the way she has adjusted and adapted to her adult life. The exhaustion of their mental states hence show in the opening shot where Hank sleeps before waking up and resuming his daily routine while the harrowing shot of Laurence’s death through lethal injection is juxtaposed with Leticia in a foetal position, with her eyes closed, on her bed. His death isn’t a source of catharsis, for sure. But in their moments of slumber, they observe the only semblance of hard earned peace afforded to them. These are individuals waiting to exhale. Death is an extended, permanent form of sleep. Death weighs heavy on both their trajectories. When their children unfortunately come under its vice like grip, the spiritual and emotional dissonance eventually entwines them.
Set in the first years of the new millennium, it is also about the ghosts of racism in a seemingly integrated society. As Hank, goaded by his father’s racist taunts, exhibits those tell tale signs too clearly, even if just to offset his fractured, bigoted legacy although he is not his father’s facsimile, we know how hard truths are difficult to shake off. Leticia, by dint of her financial status alone, is an inheritor of a world governed by race. Even the film’s title seems to suggest a cruel world where humanity gasps for breath. The resignation of both Leticia and Hank is hence informed by the decrees and boundaries within which they have learnt to survive, as that entails the wise choice for them instead of confrontation with agents of internalised hate in any form. So that way, they are both prisoners of social structures impinged on them.
Race feeds their frustrations and, in turn, their stance with their own kids. Case in point being Hank who chastises his sensitive son for being friends with his younger African-American neighbours and goes to the point of roughing him up verbally and physically when Lawrence’s execution makes him uncomfortable and he throws up, to the point of injuring him, unlike what a father is supposed to act like. His father Buck( Peter Boyle) particularly fuels his rage with his constant taunts and is responsible for calling his grandson ‘weak’, ‘like his mother’, exceeding his cruelty to such reductive words even when in a fit of impulse, Sonny shoots himself right in front of his patriarchs’ eyes. The real monster in this tale is Buck: he is just a figure of antipathy, another one of those shallow supremacists who wears his skin colour and gender as a badge of deluded superiority. He is the force behind Hank’s outbursts against Sonny, almost bullying him to submission, tracing perhaps a lifelong pattern for the middle aged man.
Leticia, too, cruelly berates her son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun) for being obese, weighing him and then pushing him down, leaving him in tears. She gradually comforts him and apologises. This instance of her imploding rage precedes the hours leading to her husband’s execution, evidenced by her restlessness and distracted looks. Hank doesn’t exhibit the same reserve of love for Sonny in any way. Leticia clearly loves her son, making him wait at the diner and complete his homework or sketch, taking home leftover food from the eatery for him especially; but Hank is simply a toxic father figure to his own though he works very hard to keep up with his usual restrained self. You can infer tough love on his part for Sonny so that the latter doesn’t fall out of the normalised way of things and is ostracised. Leticia clearly operates from a place of fear also since she lives in the South. She is forever trying to protect her son from being another African-American stereotype, extending to his weight issues.
It is striking that given his mother’s and wife’s deaths by suicide earlier, the Grotowski home is devoid of a maternal figure and is symbolic of the male hegemony ruling this household. Leticia too goes on her own, without a male by her side. It’s another parallel point uniting them. There is Hank’s burden of having a bigoted parent and together with Leticia’s concerns, the burden of raising one’s own kids in a volatile world. Since Hank cannot stand up to his overbearing father or society and Leticia knows she can’t act outside her limitations, for herself or her son, we can understand that their own self-loathing spills over to them being extremely hard on their children.
When Tyrell gets hit by a car and lays unconscious by the side of the road on a rainy evening, it is Hank who offers Leticia a lift, and she breaks down in tears in his arms when she is informed of her son’s death in the hospital. An unlikely act of humanity unites them as also a shared knowledge of grief. This is the focal point where their destinies are integrated, throwing previously held prejudices off the curve with gradual realisations of inner spirits unencumbered by shallow diktats. They meet at the diner where Hank eats his regular dinner of burger, fries and ice cream each night, where she works and one meeting leads to many more. A sudden shift in temperaments and evolving empathy, a common thread of human connection forges change.
Screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos achieve that without symbolising the theme or announcing their intents. Naturally progressing the tale is their strong suit and this allows their leads to be emotionally transparent and authentic. Contemplative passages of non-verbal cues and silently restrained shots complimented by the understated musical score help Monster’s Ball transcend convention. For instance the journey Hank takes to resign from his job or when Leticia buys him a hat. Just like its realistic delineation of an interracial and interpersonal couple’s journey.
It is this point of mutual pain that physically unites them in a moment of sudden, inextricable intimacy. It is orchestrated by the guilt that their children passed away shortly after they lashed out at them with serrated verbal barbs. Bodies and souls merge in a collective exhale. Doubts and apprehensions are then slowly surrendered at the altar of personal evolution. They are freed from their prisons of isolation and find repose in islands of private grief. These are modest lives united by love. So when Hank finally cuts off his father’s toxic ties after he humiliates Leticia and sends him to an old age home where Buck eventually dies, he finds his release, an individual exhale for the man he is and will become, perhaps always was.
Monster’s Ball ends on an ambiguous note where a moment of discovery for Leticia tracing Hank’s ties with Laurence makes the tale come full circle. In the end, they sit together under the starlit sky and a smile is shared between them, a gesture of intimacy that heralds new beginnings , a rebirth arising out of the complexity of human flaws and ashes of inherited biases. Love and mutual understanding help them come to terms with who they are. The restraint to the climax ultimately posits this as a beacon of hope. Its treatment of this extraordinary journey of empathy will forever be held by me as an example.
by Prithvijeet Sinha
Prithvijeet Sinha is from Lucknow, India. A regular contributor to Screen Queens, he lives for the beauty of poetry in moving images and translates them into stirring writings in verse and prose. He is also a dedicated cinephile.