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Monster's Ball

Lions Gate Entertainment

Starring Halle Berry, Billy Bob Thornton, and Peter Boyle

Written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos
Directed by Marc Forster

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

When Halle Berry accepted her well-earned Best Actress Academy Award for her role in Monster's Ball, the substance of Marc Forster's intimate film, somewhat appropriately, shifted out of focus. After all, the film itself would be nothing so exceptional were it not for its two masterful performances — leading man Billy Bob Thornton deserving equitable praise — so an emphasis on the quality of its acting is fair enough. But as Berry emotionally framed her accolades within the historical context of racial advancement, she blithely ignored the lesson so quietly and movingly learned by her character in the film: namely, that coincidences needn't be blown up into dramas, and that personal satisfactions are infinitely more valuable than social statements.

Berry stars in Monster's Ball as Leticia Musgrove, a death row wife solemnly seeing her husband (Sean Combs) through to his impending execution. While she struggles to hold up her head in overwrought circumstances, her overweight, pre-teen son looks for consolation in candy bars. Adding to her misfortune, her meager waitress's income is not enough to stave foreclosure of her house. And, if that doesn't all sound bad enough, a random accident plunges her life into further chaos and sorrow. However, it also introduces her to Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), a retired corrections officer dealing with familial tragedies of his own. Riddled with grief, guilt and self-loathing, these two downtrodden souls engage in a desperate, needy affair that seems inevitably doomed under the weight of circumstance.

For the first half of the film, as Leticia and Hank lead their squalid, depressing lives apart, Forster's film feels unrelentingly dour and lacks focus beyond its near-comical piling of misery upon its characters. But once they begin their romance, the two stars build a believable and affecting chemistry, freed from the earlier constraint of constantly reacting to trauma. Hank's childlike generosity and Leticia's wary vulnerability are refreshing, and as their relationship provides such a potent relief from their weary lives, the tensions that eventually threaten to tear them apart feel doubly ominous. One of those tensions — Hank's racist bully of a father (Peter Boyle) — unfortunately drags the film into flat, uninspired territory, regurgitating a shopworn, one-dimensional caricature.

If it weren't for the dynamic talents of Berry and Thornton, in fact, much of Milo Addica's and Will Rokos' script might play at a depressingly prosaic level. But the screenwriters do have one masterful stroke in store — undercutting a classic, convoluted cliché with an ending that is surprisingly thoughtful, mature and affirming.

Lions Gate's Monster's Ball DVD presents a strong anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that does a good job of translating Forster's bleak-but-vivid visuals to the small screen. Audio is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround.

The Extras

This disc includes two commentaries, one in which director Forster is joined by director of photography Roberto Schaefer, and another in which Forster discusses the film with stars Berry and Thornton. While Swiss director Forster's double presence lends to repetition, Schaefer and Thornton both provide some valuable insights. Berry is considerably less vocal about her role than she was at the Oscars.

Behind the Scenes (4:22) — A collection of outtakes which provide an amusing look at Thonrnton's, uh, method, which involves the actor jovially chatting instantly before serious takes, trying to break his fellow performers' concentration with off-camera tomfoolery (which does not seem to be universally appreciated by his colleagues), and slipping into his Sling Blade persona for a larf.

Scoring the Film (8:19) — Interviews with director Marc Forster and composer Thad Spencer, interspersed with footage of the scoring process.

A selection of Deleted Scenes includes: Schoolyard (1:00): Leticia's son withdraws at school; Hank and Lawrence (1:05): Hank delivering a surely improvised monologue to the incarcerated Lawrence; Hank and Buck (:48): The monotony of life at the Grotowski household; Retirement Home (1:10): Hank's father meets his new caretakers.

Also on board are a Monster's Ball trailer and barely hidden previews for new films.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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© 2002, The DVD Journal