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Lions Gate presents
Monster's Ball (2001)

Hank: I'm not sure what you want me to do.
Laticia: I want you to make me feel better.

- Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry

Review By: Dan Heaton  
Published: June 13, 2002

Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry
Other Stars: Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Mos Def, Sean Combs, Coronji Calhoun
Director: Marc Foster

MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, language, and violence
Run Time: 01h:51m:43s
Release Date: June 11, 2002
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AB+B+ A-

DVD Review

Monster's Ball marks a rare achievement of storytelling that few other films attained this past year. Its characters spring from the screen and draw us into their difficult lives with fascinating precision. Director Marc Russell utilizes a slow, mournful tone that nicely reveals sorrow without overplaying the emotions. In their first screenplay, writers Milo Addica and Will Rokos have crafted a small, intriguing story filled with unforgettable moments. While numerous films rely on special effects or star power, this piece succeeds with fully written human beings who never feel artificial.

Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) resides in a stern world filled with violence and hate. Engendered by his racist and domineering father Buck (Peter Boyle), the atmosphere generated by this family is filled with suppression. Hank spends his days working at the local penitentiary on death row, a site that requires considerable emotional fortitude. The corrections officers must push aside their own feelings and focus solely on the job of executing another human being. Little joy exists in Hank's life, and it will take even more troubles and a fateful meeting to push him out of his deathly state.

Laticia Musgrove (Halle Berry) must deal with her own unfortunate existence. Her husband Lawrence (Sean Combs) faces execution for his crimes, and her young son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun) spends his days eating candy bars to forget their problems. Financial difficulties are causing them to lose their house, and little hope exists for a quick recovery. Laticia possesses no love for her incarcerated husband, and her actions toward Tyrell sometimes waver towards physical and verbal abuse. Following a heart-wrenching tragedy, she forms an unlikely bond with Hank, who appears to share little common ground with her. However, they share a desperate need for companionship and love that draws them into a surprisingly warm relationship.

Hank rarely moves beyond the basic elements and reaches out to anyone. He treats Sonny (Heath Ledger) with more hatred than the love expected for a son. His disinterest mirrors the actions of Buck, who pushes Hank to act with disdain on his young African-American neighbors. Sonny avoids the brutal close-mindedness of his father, but he moves in an emotionless trance that conveys the effects of neglect. When Sonny loses his way on the walk to an execution, Hank's retribution showcases the rage boiling within him.

Laticia has been torn down by life's harsh realities, and Hank surprisingly provides a lifeboat for her worries. Their relationship is compelling without focusing on his racist tendencies or connection with her executed husband. It is amazing to note the almost complete lack of conventions within this story, which sidesteps the usual clichés. Nearly every moment is plausible and reveals a complexity that rarely appears in movie romances. The love scenes are more explicit than American audiences are used to, but they do not exist for any false aims. Instead, these moments provide an earth-shaking emotional release for people who have bottled up their feelings for years.

Monster's Ball features a wonderful script, but it would fall without a collection of remarkable acting performances. Thornton equals his excellent role in The Man Who Wasn't There with a completely different character of exceptional depth. Following some ho-hum roles in Swordfish and X-Men, Berry finally springs to the forefront with a fiery portrayal. The supporting cast all do excellent jobs, including memorable turns from first-time actor Calhoun and rapper/producer Combs. Boyle envelops the screen with his nearly motionless character and reveals a range that has been forgotten within sitcom roles. Ledger proves that he is more than a pretty face with a touching performance. The effective combination of this top-notch cast with Foster's inspired directing generate an outstanding human tale.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Monster's Ball features a decent 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that presents Marc Foster's interesting shots with bright clarity. Although it is essentially a character-driven piece, there are still some impressive visuals within the small-town setting. The one drawback is a significant amount of grain that appears periodically during the feature. It never becomes enough to distract from the film, but the appearance still is noticeable. On an overall scale, this transfer nicely conveys the somber atmosphere of the picture. However, a few minor items slightly lessen the effectiveness and move it below the premier level.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: This disc includes a 5.1-channel Dolby Digital transfer that provides a deep and complex sound. The dialogue is clear and easily understandable, and the memorable score springs well from all of the speakers. This music functions as an essential part of the film because it helps to create the exactly needed atmosphere. The one problem with this audio track is its fairly quiet sound. I needed to turn up my volume surprisingly high to experience the film at the normal level. This does not detract much from the story, but it does place a tiny blemish on this otherwise well-done transfer. There is also a 2.0-channel Dolby Surround track, which offers decent sound without the same amount of complexity.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Deleted Scenes
2 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Director Marc Foster and cinematographer Roberto Schaeffer; Director Marc Foster, Halle Berry, and Billy Bob Thornton
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:17m:38s

Extras Review: Fans of Monster's Ball should rejoice at the inclusion of two impressive commentaries on this release. The first has director Marc Foster and cinematographer Roberto Scheaffer, and they intelligently discuss the picture. The conversation focuses on the technical aspects and their goals for the visual look. Foster also speaks about the story and how it relates to the images present on the screen. Instead of following the dull "Halle Berry is so good in that scene" sort of comments, they take a more interesting approach and really educate us on the film's creation.

The obvious selling point for this DVD is the commentary with Foster, Billy Bob Thornton, and Halle Berry speaking together. This feature is also pretty interesting, although it does not delve as deeply as the other track. However, we are able to see glimpses into the real personalities of each actor. Thornton sounds very intelligent and gives plenty of nice points about his role. Berry does not talk as much, but she still injects some good insights. This commentary provides a helpful companion to the other, more complex one, and the combination reveals a large amount of compelling information.

Along with the commentaries, this disc offers a brief Behind the Scenes section that mostly showcases comedy from Billy Bob Thornton. While filming, he switches up his lines with silly statements to keep each take fresh and to make the other actors laugh. Thornton also does a quick bit as Karl from Sling Blade playing Hank's character, which provides some fun. This piece nicely conveys the fun atmosphere on the set, but it offers little noteworthy material. Also, four deleted scenes are available in a mediocre transfer. These moments run for about four minutes, and they add a few brief touches to several characters. One shows Tyrell facing ridicule at school, and another presents a brief story from Hank about his childhood. There's nothing groundbreaking here, but the removed scenes do provide several interesting tidbits.

One worthwhile featurette is Scoring the Film, an eight-minute look at composing the score. This piece avoids any promotional idiocy and simply presents the key players talking about the process. Especially intriguing is the fact that three composers worked together on the score, and the final result showcases their impressive collaboration. The final supplement is the video and DVD trailer, which comes in a decent full-frame transfer with stereo sound.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

When Halle Berry received the Academy AwardŽ for Best Actress this year, I heard some detractors claim that it was undeserving and only reflected the trends of the night. Viewers who actually witnessed her inspired performance in Monster's Ball would realize that she deserved the considerable acclaim. Billy Bob Thornton also does an exceptional job in this complex story, which ranks as one of the best films of 2001.


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