Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) works as a prison guard on death row in a Georgia penitentiary. He begins an unlikely affair with Leticia (Halle Berry), the widow of a man (Sean Combs) Hank has just put to death. The romance seems improbable because Hank at first appears to be as bigoted and remote as his father (Peter Boyle). In fact, his hard-ass actions have already caused the suicide of his own son (Heath Ledger), who was a rookie cop who failed to live up to Dad's macho expectations.

Monster's Ball, director Marc Forster's gritty slice of rural life, is almost unrelentingly dark. The body count is already high by the film's first 20 minutes and things don't lighten up much from there. A lot of hot topics are touched on, with the efficacy of a week's worth of "Oprah." All of the characters are imprisoned in their various ways, be it a racist mindset, a jail cell or, in Leticia's case, abusive parenting which she takes out on her overweight son (Coronji Calhoun). The grimness often verges into pure melodrama, but Forster is a savvy filmmaker, gets value from his cast, and knows where to put the camera for maximum visual effect.

Thornton brings a weathered authenticity to his role; his perfectly gauged underplaying is just what the material needs and uncovers disarming moments of found humor. Boyle chills you to the bone with the becalmed ugliness of the bigotry he spews. When he goes too far with Leticia and Hank has him put away, the moment is so unexpectedly comically charged that the audience nearly breaks out into cheers. Ledger is heartbreaking in his few moments of screen time, his end a real jolt. Chubby little Calhoun has a winning slyness, calmly hiding the candy bars which offer the only solace this half-orphaned child knows. Combs, oozing vulnerability, works overtime to be this dead man walking, but should really stick to his innumerable day jobs. (The music-video associations in his scenes are inescapable.) Berry has been receiving a lot of acclaim for her deglamorized performance, but, as usual, I found her acting on the thin, shrill side. Just imagine Alfre Woodard or Regina King being Leticia, rather than impersonating her, and you'll know what I mean. She's from the Natalie Wood School of acting--as lovely to look at as a wind-up doll, and likewise animated. A rather gratuitously desperate sex scene with Thornton goes on for an unseemly length of time and, when Berry exposes her much-publicized breasts, one's mind can't help speculating as to exactly why and how she came to be cast.

--David Noh