Lionsgate // 2001 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 29th, 2008
A lifetime of change can happen in a single moment.
"Make me feel good."
Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs, A Raisin in the Sun) is going to die. We don't know what sort of terrible crime he has been convicted of, but it has earned him a trip to the electric chair. There is more or less no hope of a pardon or a stay of execution. It is going to happen tonight. So, Lawrence begins to prepare himself. He says goodbye to his young son and to his embittered wife (Halle Berry, Swordfish).
The man in charge of conducting the execution process is Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton, The Man Who Wasn't There), another human being who could be described as "embittered." Hank has a lot of hatred for those around him. He despises his father (Peter Boyle, Young Frankenstein), his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight), his neighbor (Mos Def, Something the Lord Made), and anyone else who bothers him in any way. Hank only cares about one thing: making sure he does his job well, and making sure that the execution process is carried out flawlessly.
One minor thing goes wrong in Lawrence's execution process. It's not a huge thing, just a small mistake that Sonny made. Nonetheless, Hank goes into a fit of rage afterwards. He attacks Sonny verbally and physically, and the results of the conflict are unexpectedly tragic. In the wake of what happened, Hank attempts to pull his life back together. He quits his job, buys a gas station, and falls into a relationship with a woman named Leticia. What Hank doesn't know is that Leticia is Lawrence's widow, and what Leticia doesn't know is that Hank is the man who oversaw her husband's execution.
Monster's Ball is not so much a story as it is an observation of human behavior. The film isn't particularly concerned with getting the characters from point A to point B. It wants to put two complex individuals into a series of situations ranging from the mundane to the tragic, and see how they respond. On that level, I like the film very much. This level of attention to detail (both in the look of the film and in the writing's attention to the way the characters act) is always a good thing, and the actors are in particularly fine form.
Of course, this is the film that earned Halle Berry her Academy Award, and her performance here is a very good one. The best performance of 2001, or even of Berry's career? No, I don't think so. But it is a fine performance, which is a lot more than can be said for many of the roles that she chose to follow this up with (Gothika, Catwoman, Perfect Stranger, etc.). The most famous scene in the film is the one in which Berry makes love with Thornton for the first time. The cynic in me is tempted to think that this is the case simply because Berry is naked (kind of like her topless scene in Swordfish being the famous moment from that film). No, in this case, the fame is justified. It really is one of the strongest scenes in the film; a raw emotional moment in which characters are working out their life issues in a very primal way.
Billy Bob Thornton is an actor with the ability to play many kinds of roles, but there are two types of characters that he tends to return to on a regular basis. The first is the role of the crass and foul-mouthed jerk (Bad Santa, The Bad News Bears). The second is the role of the quiet and introspective man who says very little and thinks a lot (The Man Who Wasn't There, Levity). In this film, he begins as the former and then slips into the latter. It's a fine performance, even if Hank is less well-defined than some of the other characters Thornton has played.
The film was directed by Marc Forster, who has never made a bad movie. In Monster's Ball, he demonstrated three gifts that he has used successfully in numerous films since. First, he has a deep level of compassion for the characters in his films, and isn't afraid of employing a little sentiment in a standoffish attempt to stay "real." Second, he has a gift for pacing and for character development, letting everything grow and change in a deceptively organic manner. Third, the settings in which his stories take place feel real and authentic. This film takes place in a small town in Georgia. I live in a small town in Georgia, and I've been to a lot of small towns in Georgia, and none of them feels much like the one he offers up here. That doesn't matter. What we are seeing feels right, and if it feels right, it is right (at least in this particular medium).
The hi-def transfer here is a good one, clean and respectable. There is nothing here that is going to knock you out, or even anything that really demands an upgrade from the DVD release. The same applies to the DTS HD audio track, which is effective, but not significant better than the 5.1 Stereo track on the DVD. The sound in the film is kind of quiet and understated, anyway. The supplements here also don't offer anything that owners of the DVD have not seen or heard. In fact, one of the biggest supplements is gone. The DVD had a commentary with Forster, Thornton, and Berry...where did that go? Fortunately, we did get to keep the commentary with Forster and writers Milo Addica and Will Rokos, which is pretty engaging. It's a bit self-congratulatory at times, but informative and thoughtful. Elsewhere, we get several featurettes. We get to hear Forster and his cast talk about making the film for 20 minutes, we hear from producer Lee Daniels for 18 minutes, and 8 minutes are devoted to the music in the film. After this, there are four minutes of "on the set" footage, which is mostly comprised of Thornton being really annoying. He attempts to throw his co-actors off on several occasions by saying something like, "My daddy invented the first disposable douche." None of them finds it amusing. In one scene, he performs as a scene with Ledger as Karl, the character from Sling Blade. Ledger stands there uncomfortably, a nervous grimace on his face as he waits for Thorton to finish. This is some awkward footage, but more interesting than the bland interviews. Finally, there are four deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer.
Okay, a few problems. First of all, the talented supporting cast is rather underused. The second-billed Heath Ledger is little more than a famous face to add shock value to a certain plot development. The gifted Mos Def has a couple of nice scenes, but he is capable of far more than he is given here. Peter Boyle is another actor here for shock value. His role is the most one-dimensional in the film: a crotchety old man who is defined by his racism. It's startling because Boyle was known as "that guy from Everybody Loves Raymond" at the time, but there's nothing much to the part. Sean Combs is very effective in his role, but again, has little to do.
I also find the "shocking" scene in the film (you know the one I'm talking about) to be very poorly handled. The build-up to it is awkward and forced, and I simply don't buy the conclusion it reaches. It's the one stretch of the film that feels like it was counting on the sheer emotional impact of the moment to smooth over the fact that the whole thing smells funny.
Finally, I'm not a big fan of the score by Asche and Spencer. It's generic, non-committal ambiance of the sort that oh-so-many films use these days. The argument, "It works in the film, and it supports the images without distracting from them," is used a lot for this sort of thing. I don't buy it. This sort of synthetic droning has become the new cliché over the past decade or so, and to me it indicates a lack of courage or originality on the part of the filmmakers. Don't be afraid to let your music be involved in an important way. If you're just going to let it drone on in an atmospheric yet expression-free manner, you might as well just not bother with a score. Of course there are exceptions to this rule (No Country for Old Men comes to mind), but this film is not one of them.
Monster's Ball, while not quite one of the masterpieces of this decade, is a thoughtful movie that is worth seeing and remembering. Honestly, I wouldn't bother picking up this Blu-ray release if you all ready own the DVD, but otherwise the disc is worth recommending to those who missed the film the first time around.
Lionsgate is not only guilty of failing to provide new special features for this release, but also of getting rid of previously available supplements. The court feels that this is precisely the sort of behavior that is holding Blu-ray back. The film itself is not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2008 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* On the Set