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PERSONALS | MOVIE CLOCK | REP CLOCK | SEARCH

Hangman's tale

An "inspirational drama" lives up to the tag.

By Dennis Harvey

THE DESIGNATED FEEL -bad movie of this awards season, Todd Field's In the Bedroom, is so solidly crafted that it seems to be asking difficult questions when in fact they, and the answers, couldn't be much easier.

The film's idyllic Maine hamlet is troubled by little more than scattered instances of individual ego and mild class prejudice, at least before the story kicks in an extraordinary-circumstance conflict. Its villain is handed to us on a platter: he's "white trash" and a rich brat and a bad husband-father. In the Bedroom makes vengeance seem ugly and the resulting payback violence messy. Yet the deck is stacked: we're left worrying whether these avengers can now live with themselves (or, perhaps more important, avoid the law) rather than wondering whether the punishment they doled out actually served justice. Despite its liberal patina of guilty feelings, Bedroom never truly doubts that tearing the WASP nuclear unit asunder demands capital punishment.

If only all life's moral quandaries were just that clear-cut. Monster's Ball, which isn't topping nearly as many critic's polls or winning as many pre-Oscar honors, is another small-town melodrama sobered by a pervasive pall of meaning – one much better earned, I'd say. The film is more sensational in outline and more improbably upbeat in outcome than Bedroom. Yet it communicates so much thorny pain around such genuinely discomfiting issues that the hard-won modest uplift at the end feels utterly genuine. It's as good an American movie as anyone made in 2001; there will be no shame if no one releases a better one in the rest of 2002.

The screenplay by Will Rokos and Milo Addica has famously been kicked around in Hollywood since 1995, tagged as the "best unproduced script" without ever quite getting green-lit. In retrospect, it's probably just as well that bigger names (like De Niro or Oliver Stone, who were connected to the project at various points) didn't attach themselves. Certainly they couldn't have done any better than Billy Bob Thornton and Swiss-born filmmaker Marc Forster.

Monster's Ball is set in a contemporary Southern state where racial power divisions haven't changed much at all. Hank Grotowski (Thornton) is the current pillar in a house of men where the machismo that accompanies a gruesome work heritage – as employees of the Department of Corrections, they are caretakers of prisoners on death row – is the ruling code. Infirm and housebound, Grandpa Buck (Peter Boyle) spews forth pearls of poisonous sexist and racist wisdom. His and Hank's dead wives attest to the "weakness" of the female sex; the ongoing parade of mostly black men they've marched toward lethal injection fortify their other biases. Hank's offspring Sonny (Heath Ledger) has followed the same career path, albeit with a troubled conscience. When Sonny comes through with less than flying colors on his first big day, showing a little too much human empathy while escorting inmate Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs, a.k.a. P. Diddy) to his execution, he has violated commandment number one in the Grotowski code. Hank responds with one emotion the family does allow – violent anger – and Sonny's answer is, well, a form of one-upmanship that allows no follow-up.

Faced with the fact that he and a still-in-denial Grandpa Buck have driven virtually all of their loved ones to suicide, Hank finds the old teeth-gritting routine just doesn't fly anymore. Meanwhile, Musgrove's long-estranged widow, Leticia (Halle Berry), is having trouble achieving, let alone sustaining, a scrape-along routine. Struggling to keep various minimum-wage jobs, a dumpy apartment, and her hapless heavy-set son, she doesn't have time to dwell on the death of a husband she considered lost long ago.

Both Hank and Leticia are in desperate straits, each bottomlessly needy without the faintest idea of how or where to start getting help. Their paths first cross almost anonymously, then collide in yet another tragic circumstance. The impulse toward mutual kindness is so unexpected and foreign, particularly as it stretches over near-impassable racial-economic lines, that neither one really knows what to do with the other for some time. Monster's Ball's eventual narrative gist is rife with tabloid TV-movie contrivance (Racist Prison Guard Gets Nice by Going Steady with Dead Inmate's Old Lady). But it works because the script and direction are so painfully attuned to the hurdles that inarticulate people driven (or frozen) by clenched rage must overcome before a happy ending is even remotely possible.

Nothing here is softened by the conventional forced warm air of "inspirational drama." Forster has an extraordinary, uncondescending sense of place and culture. His camera and editorial sense is uncanny, and the performances – capped by the working-hard-against-glamour Berry's startling one – couldn't be better.

Monster's Ball hits so many raw nerves with so little compromise that it makes all the other triumph-over-adversity movies out there in Awardsland look trite, if not downright cowardly. This may not be the feel-good movie most people are looking for, but how often can you say the feelings in an American movie are actually meaningful, and earned?

'Monster's Ball' opens Fri/25 at Bay Area theaters. See Movie Clock, page 80, for show times.