Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Monster’s Ball



USA 2001 : Marc Forster : 111 mins

The few intrepid viewers fortunate enough to catch Marc Forsters barely-released last picture the flawed but fascinating Everything Put Together would have been keen to catch his Hollywood breakthrough, Monsters Ball, especially if they’d read Varietys rave which said it was directed with the most poetic sensibility in an American film since The Thin Red Line. While the film itself hardly justify such extravagant comparisons, Forster is clearly developing into a confident, skilled creator of moods and evocative images. His contributions, and those of star Billy Bob Thornton, are easily the most distinguished things about the film surprisingly (or perhaps not) the two elements that let it down are the ones that have been cited for Academy Awards: Halle Berrys against type performance and, worst of all, the rickety ragbag of a script by Milo Addica and Will Rokos.

The screenplays Oscar nomination is presumably a result of it having passed through so many sets of Hollywood hands over the past few years this was famously one of the great unfilmed scripts, one which big names like Oliver Stone were supposedly always on the verge of making. If true, this says more about the current state of moviemaking than about the script itself, which is an increasingly ludicrous series of melodramatic incidents in search of a narrative. The characters played by Thornton (as a taciturn death row guard) and Berry (as the widow of an executed prisoner) are brought together after suffering various family tragedies and calamities, and while they do make an intriguing, convincing, volatile couple in the second half of the movie, the overwrought shenanigans needed to get them there are more than many viewers will be able to bear.

While Forster shows a remarkable skill with investing things with significance spaces, furniture, rooms, clothes, neon he’s still got his rough edges, and this is most evident in his handling of Berry. Its an obvious change-of-pace showcase for the glamorous star, but she’s fatally overindulged most disastrously in the borderline-embarrassing scene where her character gets drunk and sentimental and starts blabbing on about a red gumball, and Forster seems to have forgotten how to say cut. Or perhaps he’s trying desperate means to distract us from the characterisations general patchiness Thornton keeps going to a neon-lit diner where he habitually asks for chocolate ice cream and a plastic spoon to eat it with. Presumably something to do with his preference of keeping life at a slight remove, but perhaps not. And, as with the similarly grief-laden In The Bedroom, the title is distractingly messy there’s a very brief mention of a monsters ball being something to do with a prisoner who’s executed without clergy being present, but in the film itself it seems to involve the doomed man (nice, no-nonsense turn from rap magnate Sean Combs) being served a trifle.

For all these reservations, there are some great things here: the shatteringly unexpected early exit of someone you presume is going to be a major figure; everything involving Peter Boyle, who contributes one of his trademark pitch-perfect character turns as Thorntons aged, racist father; the unexpected note of subtlety that ends the picture on as strong a note as it begins – those remarkable opening titles showing Thornton in ambiguous split-screen, sleeping in bed and driving his car. Theyre enough to convince us were in for a mature, powerful, complex tragedy what we end up with does the job, just about, but it isn’t the real thing. To use the movies own terms, its a very plastic kind of spoon.

11th March 2002
(seen 8th February, Cinemaxx Berlin Berlin Film Festival)

This film appeared in the Fipresci Selection 2001-2002 : click here for full list

by Neil Young

Buy Monster’s Ball on DVD