Posted in Film, Writing

How to Shock Readers with the Death of a Major Character

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Monster’s Ball Review

Monster’s Ball, starring Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, was written by Milo Addica and Will Roskos and was directed by Marc Forster. Forster moved from Switzerland, where he grew up, to New York to study film in the early 1990’s. He then moved to Los Angeles where he lives today. Monster’s Ball had been in Development Hell for years, essentially floating around Hollywood without anyone willing to take a bite. After years of false starts and nearly signed actors (including such notable ones as Robert DeNiro and Wes Bentley), Monster’s Ball finally went into production on May 1, 2001, on a budget of 10 million. It first opened on November 11, 2001 at an AFI film festival. It was then released on December 26, 2001 in both New York and Los Angeles. On opening weekend the film brought in $174,109 on only seven screens in the U.S, and the movie ultimately went on to gross 31 million dollars nationwide, glorious considering the budget (and the subject matter).

Halle Berry had started working in films in early 1991, after being spotted by Spike Lee, who put her in her first movie, Jungle Fever. She moved on to making smart career decisions to get recognized, such as starring in the box office hits The Last Boy Scout and Executive Decision. Her breakthrough role in dramatic work was her performance in the TV movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which won her an Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Mini-series or TV Movie. Up until Monster’s Ball, she had never tackled a lead role in a dramatic film and has instead been doing mostly action films like X-Men and Swordfish. After Monster’s Ball she went on to do more action films, like Die Another Day and X2. In the middle of all these big-budget Hollywood films is Monster’s Ball, a film of superb performances from every actor, including Billy Bob Thornton, Peter Boyle, and Sean “Puffy” Combs, but it would be the performance by Berry that would be remembered, and ultimately win her the very first Best Actress Oscar for an African-American woman.

Race is seen mostly through the character of Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), who has no real comprehension of the time in which he’s living. An early scene in Monster’s Ball shows Hank scaring two African American kids off his property with a shotgun. This scene makes it clear that Hank has learned his racist ways from his father and might not agree with them as fully himself, but is still under his father’s power and will do whatever he says. Even though the movie is set in Louisiana, it is obvious that these racist ideals are very old fashioned. Times have changed but Hank and his father especially are stuck in the past, and Hank refuses to change what he has always thought.

The idea of the stereotype makes its way through the movie on more than one occasion. When Hank first meets Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry) she is just a waitress who spills his coffee and doesn’t know how to bring him a plastic spoon with his chocolate ice cream. Just this scene tells a lot about the stereotypes that are brought up in this film, racially and of gender. First it is of a woman serving a man, and it is also an African American serving a Caucasian. This is showing that Leticia is at the bottom of society whereas Hank is at the top because not only is he white, but he’s also a man. This gives him the power and is why Leticia is serving him instead of it being the other way around. And not only is Leticia the one serving, but she can’t even do everything right because of everything else that is going on in her life.

This is a stereotype of women being too emotional and not being able to handle things on their own. This is seen throughout the whole movie because Leticia needs the white man to help her with her life. Her life at home before her son died is also extremely stereotypical. They’re the African American broken home. The dad’s in jail leaving Leticia as a single mother with an overweight child who she abuses. They also have very little income especially when Leticia gets fired from her first waitressing job. This is again just showing that women, especially of color, are weak and can hardly take care of themselves, let alone anyone else.

Gender isn’t a theme that isn’t seen as much as race and stereotype in Monster’s Ball, but it’s definitely present. Leticia is shown as a woman in need of serious help and of course Hank, a white man, is the only one that can help her. Before meeting Leticia, Hank regularly had sex with the same prostitute. This shows that not only did he hold racial ideals, but he also seemed to have some disrespect towards women. The scene with the prostitute shows that Hank treats women like sex objects and probably doesn’t think of them for much more than that. This is again going along with the female subservient theme throughout the movie. Naturally then, he is surprised and confused when he finds himself involved in an intimate relationship with an African American woman.

In one of the most talked-about scenes of the movie, sexuality definitely plays a major role. Leticia and Hank have a night of passionate sex soon after they have met. This goes along perfectly with the needy woman theme because Leticia needs Hank to make her “feel good.” This also hints that women can be promiscuous because they had hardly known each other. After they begin to see more of each other, Leticia becomes more and more dependent on Hank to get by. Not only does he give her his son’s truck but he also lets her move in with him after she gets evicted. Without Hank, Leticia would be homeless and have absolutely nothing.

Marc Forster did a fantastic job directing this film. In this case, the directing job is extraordinary not because Forster tackled a film that was different from what he’d done before, but because Forster had only made one significant feature film before it, the little-seen Everything Put Together, released in 2000. Berry is magnificent of course, but the terrific performances from Billy Bob Thornton, Heath Ledger, Peter Boyle, and even Sean “Puffy” Combs, shows that he is a strong, confident director who knows exactly what he wants from his actors. It’s arguable that the reason Berry is so great in the movie is a result of the direction from Forster, especially in a movie like Monster’s Ball, which has a particular tone that needs to have the right balance.

The audience receptivity of the film was interesting in that Monster’s Ball was not a movie that had been hyped previous months before its release. In fact the film had been originally scheduled for a release sometime in 2002, but when the film’s studio Lions Gate Films saw the finished product, they saw chances for awards, so they took advantage of getting the film in theaters by the end of the year. One of the earliest rave reviews was from Roger Ebert, who hailed Monster’s Ball the best film of 2001. The film wasn’t an instant success, but as it slowly unfolded at more and more theaters throughout February and March, the movie gained momentum and more award consideration, all the way through to the Academy Awards ceremony, when Halle Berry took home the Oscar. Her speech was tearful and heartfelt, and with this statuette she proved that the door had indeed become open to other actresses of color to dive into meatier roles in Hollywood and independent films.

Watching Like a Writer

When I think about Monster’s Ball, I always remember that horrific scene early in the film where Heath Ledger, a major star by 2001, dies in a shocking moment of violence. That moment chilled me to the bone when I first saw this movie in theaters, and it still chills me now. You don’t see that kind of death happen to a major star in most movies, especially that soon in the movie, and this makes me think about how such an easy way to shock your reader, surprise your reader, is to kill off one of your major characters early in the manuscript. I used this device over and over in my novel Happy Birthday to You, the third and final novel in a trilogy in which beloved characters I had established over two books I actually killed off in the apocalyptic final tale. When handled right, killing at least one of your major characters early can be super effective to the reader, because it immediately raises the stakes and tension, establishing that nobody is safe in this world.

Exercise!

Look at your current work-in-progress. If you had to kill off one of your major characters in the first half of the book, who would it be, and why?

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