Movies dealing with inmates on death row are nothing new and have been done so many times lately that they're almost becoming a cinematic cliché, with each following similar patterns and/or plotlines. Yet, films that deal with those directly affected by the aftermath of capital punishment are rarer, with such characters usually appearing in those other films as the inmates' familial visitors who are there to say their last goodbyes.
In that sense, director Marc Forster's "Monster's Ball" is something of a refreshing change of pace, although most viewers probably won't feel too refreshed after seeing it. By focusing on the wife and son of a condemned man as well as the prison guard who helped execute him, writers Will Rokos and Milo Addica (both marking their feature film debuts) and Forster ("Everything Put Together," "Loungers") have fashioned one of 2001's more intriguing, gritty and well-made pictures that should garner a few nominations come awards time.
Of course, the "hook" of the film - named for the "party" held the night before a prisoner's execution -- is that the widow and prison guard accidentally meet after the execution, and then eventually fall for each other - despite his racist underpinnings - as they're unaware of their special "connection" until it's too late.
That may have the sounds and markings of potentially over the top melodrama, and their lack of having seen each other before the event needs a bit of suspension of disbelief to work. Yet, the filmmakers handle such events and developments with such aplomb that it's relatively easy to buy into what occurs.
That said, and beyond two tragedies that unexpectedly pop up but ultimately tie the two characters together even more closely, the script isn't terribly complicated, nor does it contain many additional surprises. Few viewers will probably be blind to where the basic thrust is headed regarding the major plot movements and character developments that follow the setup.
Despite that, the story is solidly told and is present to allow its characters to stand out (this being a character-driven piece), and both they and those who embody them do that to near perfection.
As the star-crossed, eventual lovers, Billy Bob Thornton ("Bandits," "Sling Blade") and Halle Berry ("Swordfish," "X-Men") deliver such terrific and credible performances that it would be a shock if they're not nominated for Oscars.
Proving yet again that he's become this era's master of delivering so much with so little physical exertion or words, Thornton creates another fascinating character who's completely believable as a flesh and blood person, and that occurs from the moment we first set eyes on him. I'm not exactly sure how he does it, but the actor delivers so much character information with such little effort - much like he did in "The Man Who Wasn't There" - that it's simply uncanny.
The real surprise, however, is Berry who delivers the best performance of her career. Although some viewers may have an initial problem with her and/or her performance - based on her beauty and the common notion of such actresses taking unglamorous roles in an attempt to gain dramatic credibility and/or acceptance - she does a terrific job portraying the character and should dispel any such erroneous thoughts.
Heath Ledger ("A Knight's Tale," "10 Things I Hate About You") is also surprisingly good in his dramatic turn as a young man haunted by but trying to break free from generations of angry and bitter men in his family, while Peter Boyle ("Young Frankenstein," TV's "Everybody Love Raymond") creates a completely believable, homebound bigot. Meanwhile, rap mogul turned actor Sean Combs ("Made") is decent in his brief role as a condemned prisoner, and Coronji Calhoun is good in his acting debut playing his obese son.
Although the film offers relatively nothing new to the genre, and the main characters' eventual discovery of their fateful connection never really lives up to the expectations that the basic premise and viewers' superior position creates, the film's tale is told so well and the performances are so on key that everything feels fresh. While obviously not for all viewers, "Monster's Ball" is a compelling and well-crafted look at love overcoming racial issues in America. It rates as a 7.5 out of 10.