Spelled out in its broadest outlines, Monster's Ball reads like a crude liberal fantasy worthy of the late Stanley Kramer (Guess Who's Coming To Dinner): It's a message movie about a white racist redeemed by the love of a poor black woman, who is, in kind, redeemed by his generosity. The action is even set partly among corrections officers on death row, drawing perilously close in spirit to 1999's unbearably turgid and patronizing Oscar bait The Green Mile. But director Marc Forster and his stellar cast transform Ball's dubious premise into a surprisingly nuanced and resonant melodrama, bolstered by an unusually strong feeling for the crawling tenor of life in the Deep South. In one white family, the signs of social progress are laid out like layers in an archaeological dig, with three generations of men evolving from bigotry to tolerance in chronological order. Treading ambiguous ground between his openly racist father (Peter Boyle, aging into a character he played three decades earlier in Joe) and his sweet-natured son (Heath Ledger), Billy Bob Thornton guards his emotions as tightly as his casual prejudice. His attitudes begin to shift when he presides over the execution of black inmate Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, an event so harrowing that he turns in his badge and buys a decrepit gas station with his retirement money. After responding to a roadside accident, Thornton's fortunes are improbably entwined with those of Combs' dirt-poor widow, Halle Berry, a waitress who scrounges desperately for rent money while trying to manage her obese son. Thornton's grim involvement with Berry's husband remains a dark secret at the center of their relationship, which aches with shared grief, loneliness, and desperate longing. The two leads complement each other perfectly: Thornton is an exceptionally understated actor who leavens his heavy dialogue with subtle line readings and throwaway bits of humor, setting the stage for Berry's full-barreled performance, which screams with deep reserves of anguish and fortitude. Their love scene is as raw and feverishly explicit as any in the choreographed grunge of Intimacy, but their neediness is shot through with greater clarity and emotional force. Though its vision of racial harmony appears too tidy and simple-minded at times, Monster's Ball sticks closer to its characters than its message, smartly deferring any questions of authenticity to the actors.
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