Monster's Ball (2001) - Synopsis
"Monster's Ball" is the rare film about intersecting lives in which the characters transform one another in such a profound way that, while the fireworks may seem to go off just below the surface, their explosions echo in our hearts and minds long after the last reel.
Perhaps this is because the film's director, Marc Forster, has with "Monster's Ball" taken an unflinching, clear-eyed approach to the heavy legacies of family and race, as well as to the redemptive yet ethereal power of love. The truths Forster confronts in "Monster's Ball" can be at once brutal and sublime, shocking and healing.
The first half of the film introduces us to a family of men whose three generations of work has rooted them squarely in the foundation of the contemporary Southern social landscape. They are officers for the Department of Corrections, men who put into action the ultimate will of the state. Working with prisoners in a rural Georgia prison, their emotions are as tightly locked down as the cells on Death Row as they ready the condemned for execution. Billy Bob Thornton plays Hank Grotowski, who heads the death team; his aging father Buck (Peter Boyle) is home-bound but his racism is as virulent as ever. However, Hank's son Sonny (Heath Ledger), whose work on the death team has just begun, may be immune to the hate that seems to have been passed from father to son.
As Hank and Sonny and the rest of the death team prepare for the execution of Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs), we learn that while Hank shows no outward sympathy for the condemned man, he does have a great reverence for the process of his last hours. When Sonny loses control and breaks away from Musgrove's "last walk," the consequences are severe. Hank spews his rage in a confrontation with Sonny in the prison bathroom, his violence barely contained by other members of the team. But the next morning at the Grotowski home Hank's anger has not been sated. It boils over once again and Sonny pulls a gun on his father in self-defense. When Hanks tells his only child "I've always hated you," Sonny turns the gun on himself.
Buck and Hank bury Sonny in the back yard, next to the grave of Buck's wife, also a suicide, and Hank's wife. Hank can't get the casket in the ground fast enough. But Hank doesn't return to his life as it was. He padlocks Sonny's room, burns his uniform and quits his job at the prison.
When Lawrence Musgrove is executed, he leaves behind a wife, Leticia (Halle Berry) and a son, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun). Before he is put to death we are given a glimpse of this family's last visit. Leticia has been visiting her husband on death row for eleven years, and she is tired.
Tyrell has inherited his father's talent as a sketch artist. That night, waiting for Musgrove's last phone call, Leticia wails on her obese son when she discovers his secret stash of chocolate bars. She sees the best of her husband in their son, and the worst. Musgrove never calls.
Suddenly in need of work, Leticia gets a job waiting on the graveyard shift at a diner, where Hank often stops in for coffee and chocolate ice cream. Late one night, during a torrential rainstorm, Hank comes to Leticia's rescue when he finds her and her son in desperate need of help at the side of the road.
"Why did you help me?" she asks Hank after he gives her a ride home from the diner some time later. She asks him inside her house and after some drinks Leticia exposes her grief and great need, and they make ferocious love. The next morning, when Hank sees a picture of Lawrence Musgrove, a man he helped put to death, he becomes violently ill. But he does not tell Leticia the reason.
As their relationship develops, Hank realizes that he needs to help Leticia as much as she needs his help. He gives her Sonny's car, and when he buys a gas station as a new way to earn a living, he names it for her. But when Leticia tries to bring Hank a present, she gets into an ugly confrontation with Buck that sears her with the family's indelible legacy of hate.
Hank makes the decision to ship his father to a nursing home. "You must love him very much," the woman at the home says as Hank admits his father. "No," he replies, "I don't. But he's my father, so there you go. "
When Leticia is evicted from her home, Hank is once again there to rescue her. He has given the inside of his house a fresh coat of paint. Once there, he offers Leticia a chance to lock away the belongings from her past life in the padlocked attic room once occupied by Sonny. When Leticia is alone in that room she discovers two sketches made by her late husband the night that he was put to death: one sketch is of Sonny, one is of Hank. She is horrified by her discovery.
But when Hank returns a few minutes later, he tells Leticia that she looks beautiful. He thinks that they will be OK. Leticia is silent, but she smiles. Maybe they will be OK. But can these two people, drawn together by need, passion, circumstance and violence, wrestle their future from the hungry grasp of the past?