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by Sasha Stone

Monster's Ball is the kind of movie you never forget. Yes, the film that a Village Voice critic called "The Sorrow and the P. Diddy," and the film that the marquee at the Laeemle theater in L.A. mistakenly labeled "Monster Balls" is among the best films of the year.

Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) is sandwiched between his cruelly masculine father Buck (Peter Boyle) and sensitive son Sonny (Heath Ledger) - all corrections officers at the state prison. Though Buck is now retired, he continues to dominate Sonny and Hank's lives. Early on in the film, Hank is having breakfast with Buck when two black children come to visit Sonny. All Buck has to say is that Hank's mother wouldn't want "those kind of people" around to make Hank take a shotgun to the two boys and snarl "get off my property."

Marc Forster, at 31, is already a brilliant director, for he knows that all he has to do is show the expression on Sonny's face - one of shock and hurt - to tell us that Hank is acting out of character. We don't need a lot of words or tearful monologues - we need just one look.

In the first act of Monster's Ball, Hank and Sonny must put to death "cop killer" Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Puffy Combs - who is great in a small part) by electric chair. On the way to the chair, Sonny vomits on the floor - perhaps out of fear or sadness. This sends Hank over the edge. Sonny broke the number one rule of masculinity: thou shalt not feel.

And boy, does Sonny pay for it. Hank assaults him in the men's room, accusing him of being weak - each blow to his son's face seems a way for Hank to exorcise his own locked up feelings. What happens next would be a shame to reveal - but the result of it is that Hank's life will never be the same.

Within the first few minutes of the film, we already know enough about the characters to see certain catalysts ahead. We know that Hank will hook up with Musgrove's wife Leticia (Halle Berry). We also know that eventually Leticia is going to figure out that Hank helped kill her husband. What we don't know is how deeply the two will fall in love, or what she'll do when she learns the truth about Hank. Forster does a wonderful job of fulfilling what screenwriter William Goldman called the key ingredient to making a good film - telling the story we expect, but not in the way we expect it. There isn't a scene in Monster's Ball that doesn't offer up surprises.

Beautifully and meticulously written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos, Monster's Ball is a film that gives you plenty to mull over and chew on before drawing conclusions. Much of the key action takes place off screen and contains about it an air of mystery. We don't know why or how certain things happen, just that they happen, as if the filmmakers wanted us only to concentrate on the inner lives of the characters and not so much on the act of trying to right a wrongly racist world.

Women are used in various ways to further each character's agenda. Both Hank and Buck's wives are gone or dead, yet they are still used to make the others feel bad: "He has his mother in him" is used as an insult. There comes a time in the film, though, that this idea is switched around - that the power of a woman's presence is sensed so strongly that the absence of one can create an ugly world. Leticia's presence in Hank's life is easily the best thing that has ever happened to him.

There are two scenes with the same prostitute who casually undresses and assumes "the position," to be entered, impersonally, from the rear. First we see Sonny complete what amounts to a sadly desperate act, bereft of feeling, then later we see Hank attempt the same act with the same woman, yet something stops him cold. Later, the very graphic sex scene between Hank and Leticia (Halle Berry goes where most actresses fear to tread) is contrasted with the prostitute encounter to great effect: Leticia turns around and they make love facing each other.

None of the magic of Monster's Ball would have happened without the career-making performances of its two stars. Billy Bob Thornton gives such a layered, graceful performance that, for the first time, it becomes abundantly clear what Angelina sees in him. There is a scene in this film where Hank tries to explain to Leticia how and why he changed his life - it is shot through the car's front windshield and we can barely see Thornton's face, yet it is the most powerful scene he has in the movie. What he chooses not to say, how he reaches out so carefully - it is pure and honest acting at its best.

As for Ms. Berry, well, she owns this film. While she's always been good and she's had a few opportunities to show how far she can go, most memorably in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, in this film she knocks down any preconceptions of just being a pretty face. Her Leticia is complex, her reactions unexpected. Berry is at her best not in the scenes where she's hysterical, but rather in the quieter scenes where she does nothing more than listen and react. In fact, the very last scene of the film depends entirely on Berry's acting ability: how to convey such meaning with no words, just a look.

This is a powerful performance, among the best of the year. If Berry goes on to win Best Actress at the Oscars she will be the first black actress to ever win in the lead category. If she doesn't win, what a crying shame. Berry knocks it out of the park much the same way Hilary Swank did in Boys Don't Cry, a performance that has you in awe every time you look at the character's face.

A "monster's ball" is that moment in an inmate's life where he celebrates one last time before being put to death. In this film, Hank realizes that we are all on the verge of dying, just as we are all in prisons of our past, or tradition, or of our own making. But Hank has a ball by choosing a different way - he comes fully out of the past and into the fleeting but satisfying beauty of the present.

©2002 Sasha Stone