Monster’s Ball carefully balances its ability to disturb with its ability to uplift. In exploring how the film does this I want to offer a collection of thoughts that group around a question the film invites viewers to ponder: How can someone break out of an emotional isolation that leaves nothing but death in its wake?
There is a vacuum in three generations of the Grotowski men’s lives—this becomes clear within the film’s first ten minutes. First Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) wakes alone in the middle of the night, vomits for no apparent reason, and makes a ritual trip to a lonely diner. Next Hank’s boy Sonny (Heath Ledger) perfunctorily screws a prostitute who—after they have finished—tells him "you look so sad." Finally, Buck—the eldest played by Peter Boyle—wanders through the house sucking breath from an oxygen tank, adds a new page to his capital punishment scrapbook, and spits racist epithets at some teenagers of color who wander into his yard.
In large measure the racism that weighs heavily on the Grotowski home lies at the root of all the isolation on display. Beyond the confines of their family into the rural Georgia setting, racism creates isolation in the lives of everyone it touches—for both oppressor and oppressed. The film shows us that racism is merely a veneer upon the surface of the protagonist Hank’s life—at least in the sense that when the isolation beneath it reaches a critical mass, his own racism falls by the wayside enabling him to fall in love with a woman of color (Leticia Musgrove played by Halle Berry).
Freeing his life from the soul-sucking meanness of racism is, however, a messy business. In the process people involved on both sides of the battle lines get nasty and angry, but the results are worth the effort for everyone. The messes and misunderstandings that occur along the way provide Monster’s Ball with suspenseful dramatic energy.
It turns out that Hank’s worst enemy in his quiet fight against racism’s isolation is the past itself. The past clings to him and hampers his efforts, but sharply and repeatedly he makes the decisions necessary to live in the present, look forward to the future, and still honor the past without allowing it any power to hold him back. This idea is distilled into a single edit as the movie jumps from a sequence in which Buck’s vulgar racism has driven Leticia away from Hank to one in which we see Hank committing his father to a nursing home.
To the isolation of racism, the film opposes simple, passionate human intimacy.
Sex in Monster’s Ball becomes a distillation of human feeling and intimacy. Genuinely intimate sex with passion and depth of emotion is clearly opposed to perfunctory "going through the motions" sex. This latter sort clearly provides no real relief from the sickness of isolation that Hank and Sonny feel. After Sonny’s coupling with Vera (Amber Rules) at the beginning of the film he asks her—with a subtle note of desperation—if she’d like to get something to eat with him so the two of them could talk. She refuses saying, "You take care" and walking away as if he had not said anything at all.
Later we see virtually the same scene beginning to unfold again, only with Hank now replacing his son. He finds himself impotent in a moment that provides our first glimmer of hope for him. Perhaps his isolation has reached a critical mass and he can no longer simply "go through the motions" of intimacy. Perhaps he is ready for something more.
This "more" begins in a sex scene between Hank and Leticia who meet under intensely emotional circumstances that forge a bond between them. Though their initial coupling is, like the earlier sex scenes, based in desperation, it turns into something wild, passionate, and emotionally freeing for both of them. Brief shots of Leticia reaching into a birdcage to grasp its flighty occupant punctuate this scene and symbolically underscore the couple’s flight from the bonds of their isolation.
Formal Cinematic Elements Reinforcing Isolation & Intimacy
Much of the film’s power comes from the vivid performances of its actors and the spare dialogue of its script that succeeds in combining naturalism with weightiness. Beyond this, however, Monster’s Ball uses film-specific techniques to construct for the viewer a concise and visceral picture of the path that it describes from isolation to intimacy.
One of these relies on the manner in which film narrative -for the viewer—transpires across linear time (unlike, for example, a book whose pages can readily be flipped back and forth in a way that allows the reader to dismantle linearity at will). Because of this forced linear dimension film can jump to and fro between two or more story elements that may be temporally simultaneous but spatially disparate within the filmic world. One example of this technique of "parallel cutting" occurs in Monster’s Ball when Leticia’s husband (Sean Combs) passes through the last moments leading up to his execution and the film jumps from scenes of this to scenes of Leticia and her son (Coronji Calhoun) sitting at home tensely watching an inane TV show about "sky surfing."
When used in crime thrillers, its more common setting, parallel cutting creates and heightens suspense ("will the thieves finish their heist and evade capture?"), but in this film the technique forces characters who are literally isolated from each other into a proximity seen only from the vantage point of an audience member. From our privileged position as viewers we see the characters together even as they act in isolation, and we are thus led to feel the weight of a certain inevitability that hangs upon their lives. This parallel cutting scheme dominates Monster’s Ball through sequence after sequence providing much of the film’s meditative force: the actors enter into a strange sort of intimacy with each other through parallel cutting more often than through direct confrontations. Moreover, when such moments of confrontation do come they explode across the screen as they emerge from the film’s quiet background.
Another film-specific technique that Monster’s Ball uses to great effect is the Cinemascope aspect ratio that frames its carefully composed images. While the majority of modern movies use an image frame that is slightly less than twice as wide as it is tall, and television images are close to square, Cinemascope frames are well over twice as wide as they are tall. Some filmmakers choose this panoramic image shape to frame the spectacle of an action film. In the present case the compositions across this wide image work to great effect in reinforcing the isolation of the characters by placing them facing each other (or not), but at a great distance:
In addition, conversations are edited so that even in a room where the two people do face each other, they are framed to be seen in a sense as facing away from each other:
Through this use of composition and editing, distance between characters is brought to a maximum to heighten the viewer’s experience (largely on an unconscious level) of their isolation from each other. Even when the characters are literally right up against each other—as in the sex scenes with the prostitute Vera—they are positioned facing back-to-front so that their isolation is maintained. This general compositional tendency gets thrown for a wild loop during Hank and Leticia’s coupling during which they literally climb all over each other as they shift from one sexual position to another.
If any of this makes Monster’s Ball out to be impenetrably formalistic in its construction or naively oversimplified in its worldview be assured that is merely the injustice done to its elegance by my writing. The film itself resists such problems by rigorously keeping its story small, simple, and very personal. Ultimately it is this quiet minimalism that entrusts viewers themselves with the task of universalizing its tale by feeling it resonate in their own hearts and minds—one audience at a time.R
Signed Elements ©