Monster's Ball

A somber meditation on racism and family pathology, anchored by solid performances. Aging patriarch Buck Grotowski (Peter Boyle) has left his middle-aged son Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) and Hank's son Sonny (Heath Ledger) two legacies: loyalty to the Georgia Department of Corrections and racism. Now Buck, crippled by emphysema, is bitterly dependent on Hank...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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A somber meditation on racism and family pathology, anchored by solid performances. Aging patriarch Buck Grotowski (Peter Boyle) has left his middle-aged son Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) and Hank's son Sonny (Heath Ledger) two legacies: loyalty to the Georgia Department of Corrections and racism. Now Buck, crippled by emphysema, is bitterly dependent on Hank for his day-to-day needs, while Sonny, who's recently joined Hank's death-row team, refuses to embrace the entrenched prejudices of his hard, rancorous family. Sonny is friendly with Ryrus Cooper (Mos Def), the African-American neighbor Buck and Hank deride, and has formed a quietly intense bond with condemned inmate Lawrence Musgrove (Sean "Puffy" Combs). But the hard-drinking Sonny hasn't escaped the Grotowski legacy of hatred — he's simply turned it inward, and his seething self-loathing erupts after Musgrove's execution. During Musgrove's traditional last walk, Sonny succumbs to visceral horror at Musgrove's impending death, and Hank — whose respect for the rituals of a condemned man's last hours is probably his most deeply held conviction — responds with a torrent of verbal abuse. Sonny later retaliates by committing suicide in front of his father and grandfather. Meanwhile, Musgrove's widow Leticia (Halle Berry) is in her own family hell; broke, unemployed, emotionally exhausted and unexpectedly bereft in the wake of Musgrove's death, her stormy feelings are often directed at their obese ten-year-old, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun). Hank and Leticia meet accidentally and form first an awkward friendship, then a prickly relationship whose potential to liberate them both from their emotional straightjackets is overshadowed by numerous obstacles — including the fact of Hank's participation in Musgrove's execution, a subject he can't bring himself to broach. Shot in and around New Orleans and the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, this script, penned by underemployed actors Milo Addica and Will Rokos, kicked around Hollywood for the better part of six years, attracting talent as diverse as Robert De Niro and Oliver Stone before finally being made by sophomore director Marc Forster. The significance of certain peripheral details isn't always clear: Forster is clearly working a heavy-duty prison metaphor, but how much should we make of the fact that Hank likes his coffee black and his ice cream chocolate? More important, the film's elliptical character development sometimes renders the actors' work opaque; restraint is an underpracticed virtue, but even it can be taken to excess.

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  • Released: 2001
  • Rating: R
  • Review: A somber meditation on racism and family pathology, anchored by solid performances. Aging patriarch Buck Grotowski (Peter Boyle) has left his middle-aged son Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) and Hank's son Sonny (Heath Ledger) two legacies: loyalty to the Georgia… (more)

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