Monster's Ball Review
Monster's Ball is a modern day masterpiece of many layers. The film garnered publicity because its star Halle Berry became the first black actress to scoop the Best Actress Oscar, and if you see this film just for that performance, be prepared to take with you much more from Monster's Ball than you thought you would. The film has only been a modest success in terms of box office dollars and critical reception, but deserves to be regarded as one of the best films of the last couple of years.
Billy Bob Thornton stars as Hank Grotowski, a racist policeman in charge of overseeing a state execution in the Deep South. Hank lives at home with his father Buck (Peter Boyle) and son Sonny (Heath Ledger), and has severely strained relationships with both of them. Leticia (Halle Berry), the wife of the man whose execution Hank is overseeing, is a struggling black woman fighting to make ends meet. Despite his own moral outlook on life, Hank's destiny will intertwine with Leticia's, sweeping them both along into a force neither will be able to control.
The beauty of Monster's Ball is the unexpected turns the plot takes without ever pandering to 'twist' devices or melodrama. Here is a film that shows us sequences that have a proper purpose and characters that burn themselves into the audience's conscience; staying there long after the film has finished. Never before has a film contained so much pain and yet so much redemption, without losing its fluidity or appearing disjointed. The performances, in particular Thornton and Berry, are world-class, and it's no wonder Berry topped Kidman (Moulin Rouge) and Spacek (In The Bedroom) at the Oscars considering the way she bares her soul so ferociously in the film. Even the graphic sex-scenes between the two are painful, as if every sexual thrust represents a knife-wound to the heart. However, Monster's Ball is not always painful in its approach, and the film successfully leaves a pleasant taste in your mouth even if it isn't especially sweet. Much has been talked about the film's hard-to-decipher ending, with regards the debate about whether it is upbeat, or actually downbeat in terms of onscreen events. The film doesn't need to decide, and neither do the audience; it just needs to take the characters and the audience to that point and then leave them there. It would have been easier to tack on a conventional ending, but the film would have probably drew more criticism as a result. As it stands, Monster's Ball is a swirl of emotions stretched through two hours of pain and the stark pounding of reality.
Billy Bob Thornton's character Hank is so repugnant by the half way mark of the film that it's hard for the audience to ever believe they will come to like this creation. However, the director Marc Forster so swiftly handles Hank's personality transition from bad guy to apparent-good guy that you almost feel love towards Hank on the film's conclusion. It appears that Forster knows how to extract tremendous performances from his major players, and even Sean Combs (also known as the rapper P. Diddy) turns in a remarkable performance as Lawrence Musgrove, Leticia's execution-awaiting husband. Even teen-heart-throb Heath Ledger and veteran Peter Boyle are astonishing in their effective portrayals of the other members of the Grotowski family.
Monster's Ball is rich with symbolism, and clearly wishes to convey many messages to its audience. Obviously, the story of an interracial relationship, particularly by a man who starts the film despising blacks, is going to spark the most tongues wagging, but the film seems more intent to analyse the role of the father figure. It's as if three experiments are taking place in the film, and three father-son relationships are being tested, each with different situations and test conditions. The results are surprisingly ambiguous, but sadly would ruin the plot if revealed here.
It's splendid that such a perfectly scripted, acted and directed film can also be a triumph of production values, and Monster's Ball exhibits a bleak exterior channelled through Roberto Schaefer's stark cinematography and Asche and Spencer's intense and alienating score. Yes, parts of the film look and feel like other, similar efforts, but as a film Monster's Ball embraces cinematic convention and utilises it to perfection. It resonates with power, and is unflinching it its delivery.
Monster's Ball is adult drama at its very best, and is hard to fault. It's powerful with its delivery and it transports its audience to places they never expect to go. How this film didn't even receive a nomination for Best Picture at this year's Oscars, let alone win it, is anyone's guess. It's highly under-appreciated, but adored by a small section of the film-loving public.
Academy Awards 2001
Best Actress - Halle Berry
Academy Award Nominations 2001
Best Original Screenplay - Milo Addica, Will Rokos
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, the transfer is excellent, with a general lack of edge enhancement or grain, and with striking colour tones that fill the screen with a high level of contrast. Like the film, the transfer for Monster's Ball is a hazy gloss to proceedings that gives the film a cloudy exterior.
Presented in a Dolby 5.1 mix, the sound mix to Monster's Ball is very subtle, and atmospheric in an eerie, unsettling way. Asche and Spencer back the dialogue driven film with a tense, spatial score, and the mix is generally very pleasing and complements the film to the highest level. A 2.0 mix is also provided.
Menu: The menu is an effectively dark and animated menu that is rife with deep, brooding tension.
Packaging: The packaging is uninspired. Presented in an amaray casing, no booklet is provided; chapter listings are printed on the back cover.
Audio Commentary With Marc Forster & Roberto Schaefer: This commentary features the director and cinematographer of Monster's Ball discussing the screen-specific aspects of the film. Much emphasis is given to describing the film's distinctive look and how it was achieved. It's an interesting documentary, although not as interesting as the other commentary included on the DVD.
Audio Commentary With Marc Forster, Halle Berry & Billy Bob Thornton: This is an excellent and enjoyable commentary that puts the director in conversation with the film's two main stars. Berry and Thornton are open about their feelings concerning their performances and are enjoyable to listen to for two hours. It's interesting to hear their thoughts on the film's more controversial scenes, and Marc Forster the director asks them some interesting questions.
Behind The Scenes: This is a four-minute reel of outtakes and dailies, backed with sound.
Music For The Film: Monster's Ball: This is an interesting eight-minute featurette focusing on how Asche and Spencer contributed the film's fine music score, and features interviews as well as recording footage.
Deleted Scenes: Four deleted scenes are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. Three of the scenes feature additional characterisation from Hank, and one of the scenes involves young Tyrell at school.
Trailer: The trailer for the film is actually the rental trailer as opposed to the pre-release theatrical trailer, which is slightly misleading.
Hidden Trailer: On the Special Features page, highlight the Trailer option and then move UP on your remote to reveal a hidden icon that when selected will show a trailer for Marc Forster's Everything Put Together, an intriguing psychodrama released in 2000.
A gripping and powerful study of intense proportions, Monster's Ball is given a decent DVD package, even if there are rumours that Lions Gate will release a Director's Cut of a film at a later date. Still, this package is a worthwhile purchase, and deserving of anyone's money.