A shocking cheek

Film - Philip Kerr on Hollywood's prurient fascination with the death penalty

Well, now we know. Halle Berry's bottom - the right butt cheek, I think - sports a tattoo of Yakuza-like size and magical complexity. Looking at it, I felt like Ray Bradbury's nameless narrator in The Illustrated Man. Would I see the future within the coiled veins of that blue tattoo? Would I see some stranded astronauts burning up on the edge of Earth's atmosphere? Would I see the face of God?

I can tell you what I didn't see. I didn't see a very good film. I didn't see an Oscar-winning performance. And - tiptoeing across some eggshells here - I didn't see a black woman who looked, well, black. Am I the only one to have noticed? Halle Berry - who let's face it, is half-white - made a lachrymose, Oscar-winning thing about being a woman of colour, and yet the reality is that she looks no more like a person of colour than I do. Is it just me, or do most of the black women cast in Hollywood films, with their straight hair, thin lips and cappuccino-coloured skins, look just a little bit white? Discuss.

Monster's Ball, which takes its title from a Newgate-chapbook term for a condemned man's last night before being hanged, is set in Georgia; but unlike Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, this bleak and unsparing movie will do nothing for the state's tourist industry.

Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) is a racist prison guard at the state penitentiary and the son of Buck, an even more racist guard played by the excellent Peter Boyle. Hank is charged with executing Lawrence Musgrove (Sean P Diddy Combs). Hank's son, Sonny, also a prison guard, brings disgrace on a long family tradition of penal service when he vomits during Musgrove's march to the electric chair. Unable to bear Hank's hatred and contempt, Sonny (Heath Ledger) shoots himself. Meanwhile, things go from bad to worse for Musgrove's young widow, Leticia (Halle Berry) when her son is killed in a hit-and-run accident. Inexplicably - since there is no obvious Damascene moment that turns Hank from a racist paedophobe into all-round nice guy - it is Hank who plays the good Samaritan and drives the boy to hospital; and it is Hank who is there to support Leticia as she faces eviction from her home. As these two damaged souls draw together, seeking comfort from each other and becoming lovers, Leticia remains unaware that it was Hank who presided over her husband's execution; while Hank, hardly the most forthcoming and articulate of men, believes he risks losing Leticia if he 'fesses up. It all makes for a plot that feels like a page torn from a steamy novel by Kyle (Mandingo) Onstott.

Handsomely filmed and well acted, Monster's Ball purports to deal with issues involving race and the death penalty, which is why some people have taken the film seriously. But to me, it looked merely exploitative; and where some have seen artistic integrity in its unsparing death chamber scenes and explicit bedroom action, I found the film voyeuristic and morally fraudulent.

I have no objection to the film's substantial sexual content; but let's not pretend that any of this high-brow, soft-core porn was - to borrow a phrase once deployed by gullible young actresses to explain why they had stripped off for the camera - "necessary to the script". Attractive though it is, the only thing for which Halle Berry's bare behind was absolutely necessary was the film's box office.

I have much more objection to the film's ghoulish fascination with the minutiae of how a man dies in the electric chair. This is hardly the first film to show a death-chamber scene in stomach-churning detail. In the past few years, there has been a veritable glut of American movies where someone is executed. Some, such as Dead Man Walking, were more worthy than others, such as The Green Mile, The Chamber, Last Dance and Fallen. But here, what affects to be brutally honest in the possibly implied pursuit of the abolition of the death penalty - the film's position is by no means made clear - is beginning to look no less prurient than the lickerish attention paid to Berry's breasts and bottom.

What this and other recent films seem to point up is that Americans are morbidly, voyeuristically fascinated with the death penalty in a way Andy Warhol recognised 40 years ago in his Death in America series of lithographs. What does it do to a country when, week in, week out, dozens of its citizens are sitting down like punters in a seedy little strip club to witness the torture and murder of a fellow human being? The danger for the abolitionists is that with so many Hollywood movies now including a death-chamber scene, America's death penalty will cease to look any more cruel or unusual than a cowboy getting an arrow in the back.

Monster's Ball (18) is on general release

12 issues for £12