Not to be confused with the Lady Gaga tour Monster Ball or the porn film Monster’s Balls, this is the 2001 drama Monster’s Ball.
Starring Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, this is essentially the story of two very different people having a similarly bad week. Not just “it’s raining and there’s a tube strike” bad, more like “my husband died and I’m being evicted” bad. It’s grim stuff from start to finish, made watchable by the skill on display both in front of and behind the camera.
Mark Forster wisely avoids distracting direction and lets the drama unfold quietly, eliciting great performances from a cast that includes Heath Ledger, Mos Def and Sean Combs AKA Puff Daddy AKA P. Diddy AKA Diddy. As in the joke that doesn’t work written down: That rapper did some great acting in Monster’s Ball. Did he? No, Mos Def.
But it’s really all down to Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry in the lead roles, whose unlikely relationship provides a much needed ray of light amongst all the stifling darkness. He’s quiet but intense, and has never looked more like Ray Wise.
She’s sensitive and passionate, and won a Best Actress Oscar, becoming the first black person to do so. This also makes her one of six people to have won both an Oscar and a Razzie. Her Razzie acceptance speech is disarmingly self-effacing, her Oscar speech… not so much.
What’s most impressive is what she manages to do with such a rubbish non-character. Almost entirely devoid of personality, she exists purely as a victim, and is passive and helpless throughout. This is purely so Thornton can swoop in and save her like a big white-headed Ray Wise eagle. For all the film’s posturing about racism, it’s incredibly patronising when it comes to this rescue narrative. Alongside the movie’s soft-core sex scenes, it makes you question the filmmaker’s motives.
Meanwhile, the story takes one too many breaks from reality and feels top-heavy, with all the tension being wrung out in the film’s opening. After that, the plot just rolls along at the same downbeat pace with little of interest along the way. This failing of dynamics and questionable intent makes Monster’s Ball a classic case of five-star performances in a three-star film.