"Monster's Ball" is the first major film from director Marc Forster, whose film "Everything Put Together" was never really released theatrically (it recently came out on DVD). "Monster's Ball" consistently surprised me and exceeded my expectations - from performances to cinematography to locations, this is a carefully crafted and exceptional piece. It's a difficult film to watch at times, but one that rewards the viewer with powerful, compelling performances and excellent writing.
The film focuses on two families - the Grotowskis, including Hank (Billy Bob Thorton) and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) - both prison guards, as well as Hank's racist father (Peter Boyle). Hank and Sonny are preparing for the execution of convicted killer Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs), whose wife Leticia (Halle Berry) and son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun) visit for one last time early in the picture.
Nearly every character in the picture is flawed, human, suffering and seeking a place to turn to. Even Leticia's overweight son has sought comfort in food. Leticia herself, in pain and angered by her husband's death, takes out her emotions on her son. Both Hank and Leticia are faced with further tragedy and, as a result, begin to form an unlikely bond. They are simply finding comfort in one another, which the world around them doesn't seem to be able to provide otherwise. Much has been made of the film's sex scenes, but they are really a little part of a bigger film; while there is much on display, they are clearly unsexy sequences portraying characters seeking to make the pain go away, even if momentarily.
The performances are all excellent - from the supporting performances on up. Berry really reaches deep down to portray a woman who is finding herself losing everything - both those she cares about and her posessions. Thornton's performance is stellar, as well, creating a character trying to break free from the toxic feelings and rascism that were passed down from his father. Again, I was quite impressed by the supporting performances, as well. Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs is really powerful as a father telling the child that idolizes him that he is not him - he is only the best of him. The character is only in the opening scenes of the movie, but Combs really makes a strong impression. Heath Ledger, who has shown flashes of potential in some rather lackluster films in the past, offers a marvelous performance, as well, showing more range in a smaller part than any of his prior featured roles.
Technically, while not a big-budget film, all of the elements are presented in a strong enough fashion to suggest a more costly feature. The film's cinematography and lighting are really noteworthy, creating a look that's crisp and slightly surreal, as well as strong mood and atmosphere. Assisting in the feel of the film is the score by Chris Beaty, Thad Spencer and Richard Werbowenko, which is simple and subdued, but still powerful. Costumes, set design and editing are also all exceptional.
Most enjoyable is the fact that the film doesn't provide all the answers, but by the end of the film, we're shown the characters in a better place, with more hope possibly down the road. "Monster's Ball" is a masterful effort from all involved, with great performances and great writing combining for a really powerful film.
VIDEO: "Monster's Ball" is presented by Lion's Gate in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. While I've tended to be somewhat critical of the studio's earlier works, I will also say that they've been improving a great deal over the past six months. This film's presentation is, quite honestly, the best that I've seen from Lion's Gate. The film's haunting imagery looks terrific throughout; the lighting and cinematography by Roberto Schaefer is low-key, haunting and creates a superb atmosphere. Throughout, sharpness and detail appeared wonderful, as there were no instances of even slight softness, aside from a few quick moments that appeared intentional.
The only flaw that I noticed on occasion during "Monster's Ball" was edge enhancement; not enough to be seriously distracting, but a light amount surfaced at times. A couple of stray little specks on the print used were hardly an issue, either. Although the film's color palette remained fairly subdued, the neon of the diner where Leticia works or the bold greens of the fields offered brighter, more vivid colors. Flesh tones remained accurate and natural, as well. While not without a few minor problems, this is a very nice transfer from Lion's Gate.
SOUND: "Monster's Ball" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's soundtrack is mostly dialogue-driven, but there's enough little touches to provide convincing and realistic ambience. The emotional, minimal musical score really does add a great deal to the emotions of the scenes without intruding or even really calling attention to itself. Audio quality was excellent, as dialogue remained crisp and clear, as did the music.
MENUS: Lion's Gate has produced haunting animated menus using images from the film as backgrounds.
EXTRAS: Lion's Gate has included a strong amount of supplemental features for this DVD edition, although there is one extra listed on the back cover that isn't included on the actual DVD. The main supplements included on the DVD are two commentary tracks: one by director Marc Forster and cinematographer Roberto Schafer, while the other track includes Forster and actors Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton. Both of the commentaries provide each half of the whole - the director/cinematographer commentary offers technical details about the production and other information about what happened on-set. The commentary with the director and the actors provides more story and character detail, as well as some thoughts about what it was like to provide these powerful performances. Unfortunately, Thorton has to leave late in the track to go on the Conan O'Brien show.
Also included are the film's trailer, a short reel of outtakes, a featurette on the score and four deleted scenes. The box states that the IFC "Anatomy of a Scene" documentary is included ("Anatomy of a Scene" documentaries are informative and in-depth documentaries that look into several aspects of the production - they have been included on several DVDs from different studios recently, including Paramount's "Sidewalks of New York"). That documentary is nowhere to be found on the disc. The back cover also states that there is "over an hour of behind-the-scenes footage", when there doesn't seem to be close to that amount. While it's disapointing that one (or more) features didn't end up on the final DVD, I still greatly enjoyed what was included.
Final Thoughts: "Monster's Ball" is a fantastic effort, offering two marvelous lead performances, excellent visuals and a screenplay with excellent, fully-developed characters. Lion's Gate has produced a great DVD edition, with very good audio/video and fine supplements. Recommended.