Ball stars the ubiquitous Billy Bob Thornton as Hank Grotowski, a prison guard with a heart of lead. While not belittling and diminishing the self-esteem of his sensitive, whore-mongering son Sonny (Heath Ledger, successfully pretending not to be Australian), he's ignoring his bitter, racist father (Peter Boyle, who, while not a great lover, is one of America's best actors). While attempting to eliminate all human feeling by means of carrying on dysfunctional relationships with his family, Hank must also oversee the execution of Lawrence Musgrove (Sean "P-Diddy" "Puff Daddy" "Puffy" "Diddy" "Grover" Combs).
What's oddest about this casting is not just that a foreigner and a "musician" have been given lead roles, but that they're actually good in those roles. Heath Ledger makes Sonny sensitive, sympathetic, and pathetic without ever reaching bathos, and Mr. Combs pulls off a very difficult death scene without ever once rapping over a barely-altered remix of a Partridge Family song.
Best of all, though, is that Monster's Ball stars the good Billy Bob Thornton (the one who is understated and doesn't turn the acting volume up to 11), and not the bad Billy Bob Thornton (the one who's responsible for the wretched spate of Hollywood stars pretending to be mentally retarded so that they can get one of those little, phallic, statues of a bald man). The Billy Bob in Monster's Ball is like the one who starred in The Man Who Wasn't There, and his reserve is perfect in this role. Somehow, by not showing any feeling, he winds up stealing scenes from more emotional actors.
Billy Bob gets to gear up his geared-down act later in the film, when he starts dating executed murderer Lawrence Musgrove's widow, Leticia. Halle Berry is surprisingly non-awful in this role, much better than in her previous films where, in spite of being a woman with fabulous breasts, she was unable to believably pull off the role of "Woman With Fabulous Breasts."
On the other hand, she kind of spoils her performance with all the publicity work she's been doing for Monster's Ball. In every interview she likes to mention that she almost didn't get the part because she was "too pretty." As one of the 99.9999 percent of the world's population who has never been deemed "too pretty" for anything, let me just say this to Ms. Berry: shut up. Also, you can stop telling us how it felt to do the nude scenes. We get it: you're nude in the movie, so quit pretending you're talking about your feelings and just admit that you're advertising another appearance by your breasts.
When not focusing on Halle Berry's naked breasts, Monster's Ball focuses on racism as a personal problem, which is to say that it basically ignores the social and economic ramifications of racism and just looks at how it can spoil an otherwise nice evening at home. By limiting itself to this aspect of the problem, though, the movie is able to stay human and bring out some really nice moments. In one of Monster's Ball's best scenes, Hank Grotowski is confronted by the father of two young, black boys whom he has chased off his property. Rapper Mos Def plays the father, and he's awesome in this tiny role. The script really works to his favor here, avoiding the kind of posturing and quick solutions you normally get in mainstream cinema. No one gets violent, or makes real threats, and this makes the scene all the more tense.
Unfortunately, the script isn't always so subtle, and it delves into fairly standard territory when it comes to the romance. There's lots of tacit references to other films that feature interracial relationships, and not a lot of real chemistry between the leads, or even a strong sense of why they continue to see each other after their first drunken night together. Nonetheless, there are enough weird and well-observed human moments to make up for the deficits in the story.
The only real problem with Monster's Ball is the lackluster cinematography. Almost every shot looks like it was simply copped from another movie, and some are so commonplace that they should have been outlawed. Luckily, there are no shots of walking feet, the most dreaded of all the standard shots, but just about every other tired trope is trotted out and dropped on the screen. If you don't spend all your time at the movies this probably won't bother you, but in this age when cinematography is almost universally excellent, it's a bit disturbing to see it done so thoughtlessly.