“…Answer me. You hate me, don’t you?”
“Yeah I hate you. I always did.”
“Well I always loved you.”
The “monster’s ball” is the name given to a criminal on death row’s final night when he or she is given a special meal and access to materials that would perhaps not normally be allowed. A $4 million independent production from Lions Gate using this phrase as its title and riding the notoriety of a steamy sexual encounter in the film between the two main characters played by Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry, seemed to appear out of nowhere late last year. It quickly became the darling of the critics and appeared on many ten-best lists for 2001. Lions Gate Home Entertainment has now made Monster’s Ball available on DVD in a fairly nice package given the film’s low budget nature.
Hank Grotowski is a corrections officer heading the death row detail of a southern U.S. penitentiary. His detail includes his son Sonny, whom Hank rides hard as they practice the procedures for the imminent execution of convicted murderer Lawrence Musgrove. At home, Hank also has to deal with his racist father, Buck, himself a retired corrections officer and now a semi-invalid who spends his time filling scrapbooks with the latest information on death row happenings. On the day before Musgrove’s execution, Musgrove’s wife Leticia and their son Tyrrel visit Musgrove one last time. All these characters will play integral roles in changing Hank’s life in shocking and surprising ways once Lawrence Musgrove’s execution is carried out.
Monster’s Ball is by no means the best film of 2001 as some have suggested. Nor does it contain an Academy Award Best Actress performance as given to Halle Berry. It doesn’t have Billy Bob Thornton’s best work either. It lacks a fully coherent script. As entertainment, it has little repeat value. So why then is it worth seeing?
I suspect there have been times when you’ve come out of a theatre feeling that what you’ve seen isn’t quite the great experience you’d expected, yet the film stayed with you long after and served as food for endless discussion? Monster’s Ball is such a film. The questions raised and the emotions evoked more than compensate for the film’s shortcomings. Whether the holes in the script or the actors’ performances are responsible doesn’t really matter, because it’s the issues that are important, probing at the nature of contemporary society and its characteristics as they do. For instance, why is the barbarism of state-sponsored electrocution still acceptable? How long does it take for intolerance based on skin colour to be weeded out of our psyche? Can we ever hope to break the chain of like-father-like-son behaviour that hands down the worst aspects of human character from generation to generation? It’s good that Monster’s Ball makes us question these issues and think about the positive, if in some cases limited, steps that have been taken over the past half century to address them. The sad thing is that the film would have you believe that little has really changed in society in these respects. Sadder still is the fact that in some areas and in some minds, nothing has changed.
Much has been made of Halle Berry’s Best Actress win for her portrayal of Leticia. The plain truth is, however, that any number of actresses could have done as good a job as her with the role. She handles the scenes that require facial expression to convey emotion quite well, but when physical actions are required, her efforts are often overwrought. It doesn’t help, either, that the script offers a role that requires misplaced depth and range. It tends to ask for extreme emotion or action when it’s not justified (Leticia’s outburst over her son’s eating/fatness) and lack of same when it is (her response to finding out that Hank presided over her husband’s last hours on death row). As far as the Oscar was concerned, it was simply another case of righting past wrongs. Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, and especially Sissy Spacek all delivered performances that were more worthy.
Billy Bob Thornton does a fine job as Hank. For his performance, he sucks the emotional life out of Hank and gives the character an inscrutability that is essential. The necessity arises from another script inadequacy — the lack of any satisfactory reason for Hank’s sudden transformation into a loving, thoughtful individual. Yes, we realize that Hank’s early racist actions are more to satisfy his father than a true reflection of his beliefs, but his hatred of his son seems real. We can surmise that his apparent change is all related to [Spoiler Alert!] his son’s suicide and his son’s last words, but no period of adjustment is ever implied nor any realistically motivated seeing-of-the-light suggested. Thornton’s work reminded me of his portrayal of Ed Crane, the barber in The Man Who Wasn’t There, although he isn’t quite as relentingly low key. It works here for the most part, although his best performance continues to be his Oscar-nominated role in Sling Blade.
Director Marc Forster did not have a lengthy filmography behind him when undertaking this film, yet he at least had learned enough to allow the film’s various scenes to play out fully, lingering over conversations when many other contemporary films would opt for the quick cut. In one of the DVD’s commentaries, both Thornton and Berry comment on their pleasure about this. It seems a small thing, but it adds immensely to the air of reality that any film of this nature should aim for. (In one instance, though, he goes too far when he allows Leticia to ramble on in the scene leading up to the well-publicized love scene with Hank.) Forster is a strong advocate of non-visually-intrusive direction and that is well reflected in Monster’s Ball. Camera setups are simple and straightforward, and distracting camera movements are minimal. Forster was closely involved with the music score and it is a powerful aspect of the film. Characterized by simple themes and only a few instruments (several electronic guitars, a piano) processed in different ways, the effort was a collaboration between three composers (Chris Beaty, Thad Spencer, Richard Werbowenko).
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the best performance in this film — that of Peter Boyle as Hank’s father, Buck. Buck is an unapologetic bigot and now an aging man confined to the house and entertained by the television and his scrapbook — a link to his own past as a death-row corrections officer. Boyle, absent from the big screen for several years and now 66 years old, portrays the character forthrightly and with a chilling effectiveness that shows so clearly how Hank has come to be the way he is with his own son. Heath Ledger also is notable as Sonny.
Lions Gate’s DVD presentation of Monster’s Ball looks very good, considering the low-budget nature of the production. The image transfer is 2.35:1 anamorphic and is quite crisp given the occasional graininess in the source material. There are a number of difficult dark scenes (including the impressive opening credits) and rainy sequences that remain rock solid with deep blacks and good shadow detail. Colour fidelity is quite good and edge enhancement is not a concern. Thumbs up to Lions Gate on this effort.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround audio track provides a generally pleasing complement to the film’s images. Dialogue is a little variable in volume, but is clear for the most part. The most impressive part of the mix is the subtle yet effective use of the surrounds that imparts a very natural feel to the film. The film’s music score is nicely rendered. A Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix is also provided as are subtitles in English and Spanish.
We get two audio commentaries, both involving director Marc Forster. On one of them he talks with cinematographer Roberto Schaefer; on the other, he joins Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry. I had high hopes for the latter, but alas, a more self-congratulatory piece I haven’t heard. It seems to consist of Forster either stating what’s happening on the screen or praising the actors for how good they were in a certain sequence, to which the actors respond with praise of their own about how Forster framed the action or allowed them the time to draw so much out of the scene. After a while, it just becomes annoying. The commentary with Schaefer, though somewhat dry and definitely technical, turns out to be far the more informative piece.
Rounding out the supplements are four deleted scenes, four minutes of not particularly interesting behind-the-scenes footage of Billy Bob Thornton’s methods of preparing for various scenes (not over one hour as stated on the DVD case), a trailer for the video release, an interesting seven minute featurette on scoring the film, and a hidden trailers for a recent Sundance success, Everything Put Together, and three other Lions Gate releases (Chelsea Walls, The Rules of Attraction, The Cat’s Meow). Nowhere in evidence is the IFC Anatomy of a Scene, also publicized on the case.
While not quite worthy of some of the hype it received last year, Monster’s Ball is an interesting film that certainly holds your attention. The plot has many surprises, but also a few holes that ultimately detract from the film’s final impact. Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry deliver fine work in the principal roles, although nothing award-worthy. The disc is recommended although the repeat value of the film is questionable.