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MONSTER'S BALL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Heath Ledger, Peter Boyle, Sean Combs
Director:  Marc Forster
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Lions Gate Films
Features:  See Review
Length:  112 Minutes
Release Date:  June 11, 2002

“You hate me, don’t you?”

“Yeah.  I hate you.  I always have.”

“Well, I always loved YOU.”

Film ****

Sometimes, people have to go through tremendous hurt before a healing process can begin.  Monster’s Ball is filled with people going through tremendous hurt.

It’s characters are lost, detached, and empty.  Relationships are defined only by the most rudimentary terms; there is no fulfillment or connection in them.  There are fathers, sons, and mothers, and each has a helpless sense of going through the motions.  One character, Hank (Thornton), is the embodiment of all the others, while at the same time, being a complete blank slate of a human being.

He works as a guard on Death Row in a small southern town, like his aging father Buck (Boyle) did before him, and like his boy Sonny (Ledger) is doing now.  His father is a despicable racist, which sort of makes Hank one, too, although racial hatred actually seems like just another way Hank goes through the motions.  There’s no real passion in it for him.

On the other side of the tale is Leticia (Berry, in her Oscar winning role).  Her husband (Combs) is about to die in the electric chair.  Her son, all she really has left, bears some of the brunt of her emotional storm.  Despite their circumstantial connection, she and Hank do not meet…not until real crises brings them together.

The crux of the story is their evolving relationship, and largely what makes Monster’s Ball such a standout film.  Few movies I know of would have the courage to portray love in this light:  not romantic, not sexual, but born out of an almost horrific desperation and loneliness.  Hank and Leticia’s relationship cannot be defined by conventional terms.  It rises from the ashes of tragedy, and works, strangely enough, simply because though neither one has a lot to give, to the other, it’s so much more than what they’ve ever had before.

Director Marc Forster lets his picture play out like a good novel.  It’s driven by characters that are complex and emotionally real, and it gets us close to their minds, hearts and souls.  So much so that I don’t think anyone reacts with anger or disdain early in the film when Hank engages in a racist confrontation.  Without explanation or narrative, we simply understand that his heart’s not in it.  More than that, we feel this is a character ripe for rebirth and redemption.

I can’t say enough about the actors in this film…every last one to a man or woman approached the movie with courage and conviction, and in most cases, the performances are career highlights.  Billy Bob Thornton, who is always brilliant, has arguably never been better than he is here.  And of course, Halle Berry made Academy Award history by scoring a statuette for her work here, in which she completely shuns her famed cover-girl image to delve deep inside a heartbroken woman. 

Heath Ledger, who has shown talent in films like The Patriot and A Knight’s Tale, fearlessly trashes his image as a heartthrob in playing Sonny with intense emotional grit that I personally felt was worthy of Oscar consideration.  And veteran Peter Boyle, who has proven his ability as a comic performer time and time again, scores big here by playing a hateful, unsalvageable character without apology.  Special mention must also go to Sean Combs, as the popular musician proves once again he has a talent for acting, as he did in Made.  Hopefully, this won’t be the last we see of him on the big screen.

But while the actors give these characters their heart, the script by Milo Addica and Will Rokos gives them their soul.  Their words aren’t always poetry, and they sometimes struggle to express what they themselves can’t explain, but there is a truthfulness and purity in their dialogue that seems both clumsy and graceful at the same time.

The future is always uncertain…Monster’s Ball never pretends that anything is a given.  Happy ever after may or may not be in the cards for Hank and Leticia.  But the real beauty of the film is that they at least end up with more hope than they started out with.

Video ***1/2

This is a striking anamorphic transfer from Lion’s Gate, and this couldn’t have been the easiest film to render to DVD.  The movie is filled with striking visuals and lots of darkness, where images are sometimes more defined in shadow than in light.  That being said, I think the movie looks even better on disc than it did theatrically.  The image manages to keep a sense of detail where called for, and a bit of softness where required, too…many scenes, for example, use rack focus to go from deep to shallow within a shot, and the effect is both well used and nicely rendered here.  I noticed a touch of compression near the very end, as the camera panned toward the night sky, leaving a bit of haze and shimmer to the image.  Apart from that, though, this is a quality offering.

Audio ***1/2

For a mostly dialogue-oriented movie, this is a 5.1 transfer with a few tricks up its sleeve, including some surprising amounts of dynamic range, some sound manipulations as we see events from different points of view, and a terrific, minimalist musical score that enjoys the benefits of open-channel orchestration.  High marks.

Features ***1/2

The disc boasts two commentary tracks, one by director Forster and his director of photography Roberto Schaefer, and one by Forster with Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton.  The former is the more informative one, for those looking for more in-depth information.  The second, while a pleasant listen, is mostly a lot of compliments and congratulations going around, but with a few good stories here and there in the margins.

The behind the scenes footage is actually four minutes of hilarious outtakes involving Thornton, which was a comic catharsis after the emotional experience of seeing the film.  Wait til you see how one of the picture’s most intense scenes turns out when Hank becomes…Karl!  Mm, hmm. 

Rounding out is a video trailer, four deleted scenes, and an 8 minute featurette on the scoring of the film, which is not mentioned on the box.  The box does, however, mention an “Anatomy of a Scene” and over an hour of behind-the-scenes footage, neither of which seems to appear on the disc unless I have missed them as Easter eggs.

Summary:

With Roger Ebert naming it best picture of the year, and with the historic Oscar win, I personally hope that Monster’s Ball continues to draw the attention of the curious.  It’s one of the most rewarding movie experiences I’ve enjoyed in a long time.  This terrific DVD offering from Lion’s Gate is the perfect way to experience it.  Highly, highly recommended.