(a “grief” film review by Timothy J. Verret)
I don’t quite know what it is about me that attracts me so much to films about grief. My guess would be because I know grief all too well. That little SOB has hung around me more than I would care to admit (though I just did). I also think grief attracts me so I can experience the emotional and spiritual healing that comes from it. MONSTER’S BALL is a film mostly about grief, but it surprises at every turn as it moves forward to the telling of two people in need of emotional and spiritual healing from their grief.
MONSTER’S BALL, directed by Marc Forster, begins in places of great grief (Charlie Brown calls it “good grief!” but what we are talking about here is “great grief!”). Hank is a prison guard along with his son, Sonny, and they both live at home with Hank’s “Pop.” There is not one single expression of family love in their home except for Sonny who loves his “Pop,” though love is hardly returned from Hank. In the second expression of grief (the first is a man on death row electrocuted at the prison Hank and Sonny work and a man central to the film), Hank tells Sonny to get out of their “cold home.” Sonny pulls out a gun on Hank, and Sonny asks Hank the question to end all questions, “You hate me, don’t you?” I don’t need to give you the answer, though, suffice enough to say Hank’s answer leads Sonny to shoot himself in the chest. When Sonny’s coffin is lowered in the ground, the priest asks Hank the question to end all questions, “Do you want me to say something before we lower Sonny’s coffin?” Hank answers, “No. All I want to hear is that dirt hitting that coffin.” That’s grief NOT leading to healing. The third expression of grief in MONSTER’S BALL is when Letitia, a financially and emotionally struggling African-American woman with a son (sound familiar?), is walking home one rainy night when her son is hit by a car and dies. Unlike the answer Hank gives his son, Letitia would have answered to her son, “No! I don’t hate you! I love you!” That’s grief leading to healing.
Having Hank and Letitia cross paths in their grief is certainly unexpected. Hank is a MAJOR racist, as is his “Pop,” and they both suffer from severe toxic masculinity (so ironic that the viewing of MONSTER’S BALL came on the heels of a presentation I recently did about toxic masculinity). Letitia is “black,” so what could Hank ever have in common with her? You guessed it….grief! Grief can bring the most unlikely pairs to shares, shares that would probably never happen were it not for the commonality of grief. And Hank and Letitia become this shared pair and they begin the coming to grips with their own grief (the death of Hank’s son and the death of Letitia’s son) through shared grief. This sharing, though, does not come easy at first. It actually starts off as sexuality (and I’m talking raw, animalistic sexuality) but once that nonessential has been peeled away from them, they get to the good stuff, i.e., intimately shared love from intimately shared grief.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Hank in MONSTER’S BALL. Now, I don’t know if Mr. Thornton as a kid told other kids that one day he would be famous but I imagine if he did, kids might have said, “You ain’t gonna be famous with no name like Billy Bob!” But Billy Bob proved them all wrong by becoming famous, in fact “multi-famous.” Mr. Thornton acted in, directed and wrote SLING BLADE (1996), and his performance in that film was brilliant, his direction spot-on, and his writing so good that he earned an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Halle Berry plays Letitia and she, too, is so good that she earned an Academy Award for Best Actress. As a side note, Joaquin Phoenix for JOKER (2019) gave the very best Best Actor Oscar acceptance speech I have ever heard, while Halle Berry winning her well-deserved Oscar for MONSTER’S BALL gave the very best Best Actress acceptance speech I have ever heard. Berry didn’t just open the door but broke down that door for actresses of color. In another side note, fellow nominee, Sissy Spacek, was just as deserving of the Best Actress win for IN THE BEDROOM (2001), but Berry had to win to break that “bedroom” door down! The supporting actors in MONSTER’S BALL, the late Heath Ledger as Sonny and Peter Boyle as “Pop,” also give extraordinary performances.
I guess all that is left to review is why this film is called MONSTER’S BALL? When I think of a “ball,” I think of a gathering of happy people, celebrating, maybe it’s a wedding. What I don’t think about is a “ball of monsters,” a gathering of unhappy, grieving people, not celebrating, maybe it’s a wedding, and yet we are all “monsters” attending a ball when we are in grief. We don’t have to attend this ball; many of us, in fact, don’t and instead isolate and withdraw because of our grief. It makes sense, though, not to want to attend this ball because we have lost who we thought we once were. A name tag might be given to us before entering the ball, but what name is that exactly? We have been shattered in a million pieces and are completely clueless what to do about that. But if we show up at the “monster’s ball,” share our grief with another monster, heal together from our shared grief, we might just leave this ball no longer monsters. I think that is what happens in MONSTER’S BALL and hence the title for the film. Hank and Letitia showed up as grief monsters at a ball and because they shared and healed from their grief, they were able to leave as “non-monsters” and, yes, indeed, maybe it’s a wedding.
MONSTER’S BALL is a film about grief, but there’s nothing to grieve about two exceptional and “raw” performances from Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry and certainly nothing to grieve about a heart-rending screenplay written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos. In fact, I invite all future screenwriters to study the screenplay of MONSTER’S BALL, for it is so perfectly written so as to not overwrite about grief, as grief often enough cannot be written with words; it has to be intimately felt and shared with as few words as possible as is evident in MONSTER’S BALL. This film is about when words fail our grief, and we enter into the “monster’s ball” to leave emotionally and spiritually healed, only to be invited again sooner than we would hope. Or we don’t RSVP to this ball at all.