Monster’s Ball is quite an experience, both intimate and gruelling as well as dark, disturbing and provocative. It’s quite an achievement for Swiss-born director Marc Forster in this, only his third feature film. Forster says he wanted to make a film about the need to be loved featuring characters trapped in a legacy of hate. To this end, he demanded, and gained, uncompromising emotional honesty from all of his cast. The screenplay was written in 1995 by Will Rokos and Milo Addica, two small-time actors who envisioned roles for themselves in the film. Monster’s Ball passed through the hands of the likes of Robert De Niro, Sean Penn and Oliver Stone before it fell into the lap of Marc Forster. Rokos and Addica also manage to have small roles in the film.

Billy Bob Thornton just gets better in each film he makes and in Monster’s Ball he puts in a beautiful portrayal of sadness and hope, but Halle Berry is monumental. Berry, better known as the spokeswoman for Revlon than for her acting ability, delivers a career-defining performance for which she won a Silver Bear at Berlin as well as her Best Actress Oscar this week. Berry’s performance is so real, so focused that at times you feel like a voyeur. The frequently discussed sex scene between Berry and Billy Bob Thornton has to be one of the most honest, compelling love scenes I have seen on the big screen in years. Sean P. Diddy Combs also puts in a believable performance as the man on Death Row. Heath Ledger struggles at times with his Southern accent but is convincing as the son who cannot continue living a life of hate. Peter Boyle exudes hideousness as the racist, sexist patriarch of the family who can show no compassion.

This is not an easy film to watch. It was shot on location in a prison in Angola and in New Orleans during the rainy season. There is much stronger stuff here than in Dead Man Walking and yet Monster’s Ball doesn’t go over the edge and fall in a maudlin, sentimental heap. The film is a very spare depiction of pain, unspoken misery, cruelty and the pathos of people who live emotionally unconnected lives. In many respects it is not light entertainment but well worth the journey if you can go the distance.

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