As headlong wallows in hatred and degradation go, Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball self-consciously outgrunges the year in American film, but the upshot is curiously unconvincing. This particular slice of bruised Georgia peach, with its bigoted rancor and Job-like tragedy spree, falls from the Tennessee Williams orchard, but with significantly less blab. Forster (Everything Put Together) is not quite the dilettante-hack you’d expect given the film’s faux artiness, but Monster’s Ball is a So-Goth footnote, executed just efficiently enough to make you pine for the backwater days of John Huston’s Fat City and Wise Blood. What you glimpse here amid the fastidiously pretty focal fuzz and slumming Hollywood royalty is the difference between a filmmaker exploring a workaday truth and a careerist dallying in the foothills of American crackerdom as if earning a Cub Scout badge.
It’s a subtle distinction in Monster’s Ball, because the movie gets so many things right: spatial details, trash decor, behavioral rhythms. (The way the actors offhandedly show their characters’ intense affection for Wild Turkey and oatmeal is lovely.) Certainly, there are the raw ingredients for a Faulknerian harrowing: three lonely generations of racist prison guards (infirm retiree Peter Boyle, execution-team captain Billy Bob Thornton, rookie Heath Ledger), and a boozy waitress (Halle Berry) whose husband (a fine, weary-voiced Sean Combs) is on death row. The trio of shotgun-toting whiteys have it no better: Their women having long vacated the joint, the family unit is so bilious that Ledger’s laconic punk, after fucking up on Combs’s last mile, pulls a revolver on his dad and then blasts himself in the chest.
When asked if he wants something read at his son’s burial, Thornton’s dead-eyed dick replies, “All I want is to hear the dirt hittin’ that box.” Monster’s Ball should add up to a poison-pen portrait of cannibalistic Southern masculinity, but it doesn’t—after the first act’s circumstantial pileup, Thornton quits his post and falls in with Berry’s shell-shocked floozy instead, making some nasty and severely irrational interracial whoopie. (This sex sequence might’ve had some thrust if Forster hadn’t shot it from distant rooms and through various pieces of furniture.) What at first blush read like fashionable dolor—the cinematic equivalent of complaint rock—becomes the obvious architecture for a tolerance sermon; the schematically arranged characters are thereafter reduced to thoughtful brooding. In the end, what Forster and his screenwriters manage to achieve by restraining the clichés, they drown in overlighting and cool introversion. Already graced with twin best-acting awards from the ever dubious National Board of Review but far too studied to generate much impact, Monster’s Ball wastes a ton of potent material—Combs donning a pre-chair diaper and Thornton extracting his son’s spent bullet from the family armchair are moments an artist could’ve used like a blackjack.
Actual concussive cranial abuse would be preferable to Jessie Nelson’s I Am Sam, in which Sean Penn gets his Rain Man turn as a retarded man who, unlikely as it sounds, gets unsupervised custody of his newborn child and raises her for seven years, when finally the authorities crack down and bring him to court. You could hope they’d crack down on the Starbucks product placements just as sternly; in any case, the treacle and showboat handicap impressions flow like half-and-half. Both Sam himself and the movie’s soundtrack relentlessly reference the Beatles for reasons only the scriptwriters can fathom (it’s the second film of the month, after Vanilla Sky, in which someone claims George as their fave), while the protracted quotes from Kramer vs. Kramer seem guileless. As a filmmaker, Nelson isn’t above a hand-twitch close-up. The bargeloads of thorny reality the movie evades are stupefying, but Penn’s slack-eyed Candide edging toward a semi-romantic clinch with high-powered lawyer/vanity engine Michelle Pfeiffer (typecast again) is more than the innocent moviegoer should have to bear.