Monster’s Ball

monstersball_coverAs a visitor to Exploded Goat, you must remember: everyone else is always wrong about everything. We’re the only website that loves you enough to tell you the truth. Of course, we lie too. But we only lie when we have to. (I’m not going to say why I really spend so much time watching cartoons and fetchingly drawn ladies with blue hair.)

Whether they have to or not, everyone else in this entire stinking world will lie to you. For instance, they all lied about Monster’s Ball. Look at these reviews1:

“Even if the last half gets bogged down in the cinematic equivalent of quicksand, the first half is absolutely exquisite and captivating.”

Translation: Even though it sucks, I recommend it.

“A profoundly hopeful and optimistic film about people’s ability to bounce back from just about anything.”
— Rene Rodriguez, MIAMI HERALD

Translation: If only the main character had been brutally raped, and had to come to terms with it, the movie would have been perfect viewing for Lifetime television.

“Sadness engulfs the people in this provocative drama like a dense fog, leaving them with little sense of direction or purpose except trying to get by each day. Stunning performances!”

Jesus, look at that – an exclamation point. Here, the expectation is that you, Betty’s dimwitted readers, will have been lulled into a depressed funk by the preceding sentence. Sadness engulfs like a dense fog? Christ, that sounds like me when I have to go to work2. And then, BAM! Stunning performances. I mean… Stunning performances!

Monster’s Ball is a depressing slog about jerks who suck. That’s my 100% USC Film School-certified opinion. The son of a racist (Peter Boyle), Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) is a semi-racist. We know his dad’s a racist because the first thing out of his mouth is: “Time was, those niggers knew their place.” And when a couple of black kids come over to see Hank’s son, creatively named Sonny (Heath Ledger), Hank’s dad makes Hank chase them off with a rifle.

The blatant and terrible racism on display is supposed to disturb us. But I’m more creeped out by the fact that the kids, who look about eight or twelve, come to “play” with the twenty-something Sonny. That’s icky.

Films can be depressing slogs through personal hells and still work. Just see Vertigo or Taxi Driver — two of the greatest films. What qualifies Monster’s Ball as irredeemable dreck is a total lack of self-humor. Since it is about race (don’t you know), it has decided it is important, and that its importance is enough to see us through. Of course, the film doesn’t even have the courage of that conviction, so it throws in a long and graphic sex scene.

Like all filmic sex scenes, this one is wholly exploitative. In movies, sex (like graphic violence) is used to elicit a visceral response borne of the male gaze – the male desire to look at breasts. It is similar to our desire to see stuff blown up. The only reason it happens is that we can cheer, make catcalls, or pump our fists in the air. The fact of sex can have dramatic purpose. Its graphic depiction serves none but the erectile.

One defense for the sex scene is that it represents a catharsis for the Halle Berry character. (Terrible performance, by the way. All she does is look stern.) Maybe the fact that she screws Hank has dramatic purpose. OK. But do we have to see it, and if so, why? To make it more real? The sex isn’t real. If it were, to what end would the director pointedly avoid shots to make it unmistakable? Certainly commercial, since the film wouldn’t get distributed widely, and practical – Halle and Billy Bob weren’t having sex.

The fact that commercial considerations argued against the filming of such shots means that, on some level, the filmmakers viewed Monster’s Ball as a commercial enterprise. Which means that concessions were made. Thus, it’s only a movie, and the reality argument fails.

So if they weren’t having sex, why is this scene in the movie? So we can see Halle’s boobs without having to watch Swordfish? Since this is a skin flick pretending to be an arthouse film, it’s easy to expect the dreary dullness that passes for sophistication among ‘serious’ filmmakers. When it comes to commenting on race relations, Candyman is more insightful. But it does not belong to the same elevated genre as Monster’s Ball: the ‘boring film’ genre. If nudity and violence in horror movies are inherently exploitative, that makes horror films exploitative, right? Well, there’s nakeds akimbo3 in Candyman, with much greater motivation (and much less prurience) than in this film.

In some ways, Monster’s Ball reminds me of Joe R. Lansdale. His stories about the South (Texas in particular) are often full of horrible goings-on. Unlike the makers of Ball, however, Lansdale has a great sense of humor. He’s also a martial artist who founded his own style of fighting. Ball’s director is Mark Forster, a European film student. Not only could Lansdale write a helluva better movie than Forster, he’d kick his ass doing it. And it would be funny.

1These are from the Rotten Tomatoes website.

2Meaning you, my audience. I don’t work.

3Were it up to me, movies would have much more nudity than swearing. As a writer, I take words seriously, and if you can’t swear cleverly, don’t swear at all. Since it invests a false energy in the words their content cannot support, banal swearing is even worse than regular banal dialogue. Also, I don’t believe that banal nudity exists. For more on this, see my Wendigo review.

About Kent Conrad

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