Some will remember ‘Monster’s Ball’ as the film that earned Halle Berry an Oscar for Best Actress, especially since she was the first African American actress honored with that award in Academy history. Others will remember it as a raw and emotionally charged exploration of hate, prejudice, and redemption that refuses to pull any punches from its bleak beginning to its solemn conclusion. Me? I’ll always remember it for Heath Ledger’s heartbreaking, vulnerable performance as a son longing to earn his father’s approval.
’Monster’s Ball’ tells the story of a trio of men in a racially charged South: a racist correctional officer named Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), his son and co-worker, Sonny (Ledger), and his father, Buck (Peter Boyle). When a family tragedy forces Hank to question his effectiveness as a father, his purpose in life, and the influence of his elderly father over the years, he finds a kindred spirit in a single mother named Leticia (Berry) who has experienced a terrible tragedy of her own. The two bond despite Hank’s prejudice and their relationship quickly escalates as sex and love begin to intermingle. As he grows closer to Leticia, Hank must contend with his father’s disapproval, overcome his own doubts, and come to terms with the man he has become.
Even before ‘Monster’s Ball’ became an awards darling and a critical favorite, director Marc Forster (‘Finding Neverland,’ ‘Stranger than Fiction’) was calling his film a performance-driven labor of love. In place of a traditional narrative, the film focuses on a slice-of-life tale that begins in the middle and ends without any concrete resolution. Forster relies on Thornton, Berry, Ledger, Boyle, and a host of fine supporting actors (including a 10-year old natural named Coronji Calhoun and a surprisingly effective Sean Combs… yep, Diddy himself) to craft a group of realistic human beings, rather than a witty or contrived cast of characters. Thornton is at his best, revealing most of Hank’s thoughts and feelings through expressions instead of words. Boyle is startlingly frightening as an aging bigot whose cruelty knows no bounds. And Ledger? Ledger becomes the soul of the movie, a catalyst whose influence challenges Hank to alter the course of his entire life.
But as good as the performances are, I have a fairly big problem with ‘Monster’s Ball’ -- the casting of its award winning actress. Yes, Berry legitimately earns her Oscar nomination (and eventual win) every step of the way, but Forster didn’t make her character look like anything other than a doe-eyed model. Unlike films in which the appearances of prominent actresses have been drastically altered to great effect, Forster and company simply strip Berry of makeup and expect audiences to accept her as an average woman. She doesn’t… she still looks fantastic. As a result, Hank’s conversion from racist to lover is undermined because it doesn’t seem like he’s making a difficult decision. His inner-turmoil is neutered because he can’t decide whether he wants… Halle Berry? Had Leticia been less attractive, Hank’s transformation (and arguably the entire film) would have been far more powerful and resonant.
Petty? Perhaps, but I can’t get past the feeling that Hank might not have departed from his upbringing if Leticia didn’t look like a supermodel. Regardless, ‘Monster’s Ball’ is packed with notable performances and anchors them to a fairly compelling (albeit low-key) character drama about love’s ability to conquer almost anything.
Wow. If you own a copy of ‘Monster’s Ball’ on DVD, be sure to watch a few scenes before you toss in this new Blu-ray edition. Not only has Lionsgate minted a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that thoroughly trounces its SD counterpart in every regard, the studio has delivered a transfer that holds its own amongst other similarly-toned BD releases on the market. Don’t get me wrong, ‘Monster’s Ball’ isn’t a pretty flick by any stretch of the imagination. Its undersaturated primaries, pale skintones, and occasionally monochromatic palette are meant to evoke loneliness and isolation rather than beauty and awe. However, the Blu-ray edition boasts such stable colors, crystal clear fine details, sharp textures, and increased image clarity, that the standard DVD looks like a VHS tape by comparison. To top off the transformation, the high-def transfer doesn’t suffer from any significant artifacting, banding, crush, or edge enhancement.
If I have any complaint it’s that the film’s darkest scenes lack polish. Shadow delineation is problematic, deep blacks aren’t always fully resolved, and noise creeps into nighttime scenes on occasion. Still, these relatively minor mishaps rarely distract from an otherwise consistent and faithful presentation. Filmfans should be very pleased to see how well ‘Monster’s Ball’ has made the transition to high definition.
Even though ‘Monster’s Ball’ is an extremely subdued, conversational affair, the lossless DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track featured on this release is an impressive demonstration of proper sound design. Dialogue is crisp, clear, and nicely prioritized, the film’s moody score envelops the listener from every direction, and the rear channels inject realistic ambience and convincing interior acoustics into an otherwise quiet mix. Better still, pans are exceedingly transparent, directionality is natural and precise, and I continually found myself immersed in the environments. Granted, low-end LFE support and overall dynamic impact can be underwhelming at times, but ‘Monster’s Ball’ isn’t the sort of film that splays the screen with bullets or attempts to rattle your home theater with explosions. Its subtle sonics enhance the tone of the story and undergird the crescendo of sadness and hopelessness that populates the story.
I doubt anyone will pull ‘Monster’s Ball’ off the shelf to show off their audio gear, but I also doubt the film will ever sound any better than it does here. While by no means a showstopper, this DTS HD MA track offers a seemingly effortless reproduction of the film’s first-rate sound design.
While the Blu-ray edition of Monster’s Ball offers fans a decent assortment of special features, it’s anything but a definitive collection. Missing from the 2002 DVD are two audio commentaries -- one with director Marc Forster and cinematographer Roberto Schafer and the other with Forster and actors Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton. Also missing is the Sundance Channel's “Anatomy of a Scene” featurette that appeared on the 2003 Signature Series DVD. Typically, there’s a sense of logic to a studio’s decision to leave particular supplements off of a BD release, but cutting a pair of commentaries and a lengthy featurette? I suspect this isn’t the last we’ve seen of ‘Monster’s Ball’ in high definition.
’Monster’s Ball’ is a challenging indie drama that stumbles a bit as it goes due to some problematic casting, but the film nevertheless features extraordinary performances from both its lead actors and supporting cast. The Blu-ray edition includes an excellent video transfer that outclasses its DVD counterpart in every regard and a nuanced, faithful DTS HD Master Audio track. The only major downside is that the disc’s supplemental package, while decent, doesn’t include two audio commentaries and a lengthy featurette that appeared on previous DVD versions. All in all, the Blu-ray edition of ‘Monster’s Ball’ isn’t the definitive release fans were hoping for, but it’s still definitely worth a look.