The high cost of racism and intolerance, especially when weighed against the human need for understanding and companionship, is at the heart of Monster's Ball, a brave, emotions-on-its-sleeve character drama featuring some of the year's strongest performances.
Hank Gutowski (Billy Bob Thornton) is a second-generation prison guard who seems to have room for only two feelings: a keen sense of tradition and an overwhelming, blinding hatred of people whose skin is darker than his.
Both of those traits he seems to have inherited from his father, Buck (Peter Boyle), a retired guard who now spends his days sitting at home, an emaciated, bitter old man, kept alive by the thin plastic tube that connects him to his oxygen tank. And then there's Hank's son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), who most decidedly does not fit in. He, too, works at the jail, but possesses too much of a soul to feel anything but contempt for the job. Buck loathes him.
It's only a matter of time before some spark ignites this tinderbox of hate and self-loathing. The flashpoint occurs when death row inmate Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) is escorted to his execution. Sonny breaks down and dashes to the bathroom. Later, an enraged Hank savagely attacks him.
Things don't get any better when the Gutowskis return home, and the evening ends with Sonny pulling a gun on his father. Tragedy strikes, and Hank must face the reality of all the bad karma he and his dad have engendered.
But redemption shows up in a most unexpected place. One night, in a rainstorm, Hank happens upon a black woman and her young son on the side of the road. There's been an accident, and she needs help. He provides it, calling upon a tenderness neither he nor we ever knew was there (Milo Addica and Will Rokos' script demands a leap of faith here that not everyone is going to be willing to make).
The woman is Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry), wife of the man Hank just helped put to death. But neither he nor she realizes that fact (another leap the script demands; could she really have spent 11 years visiting her husband, and never once noticed the guards surrounding him?). If anything, Leticia is even more desperate for companionship than Hank. Her husband's dead, she's taken out her rage on their defenseless son and there's not a moment she doesn't feel alone, ashamed and adrift.
Can these two ever become one? Should they even try?
Monster's Ball - the name comes from an ancient tradition of throwing a final-night party for a condemned man - never really tries to answer the first question, but comes down hard on the side of yes when it comes to the second. Hank and Leticia may not be the perfect match, but their souls have myriad points of contact - beginning with a sense of abandonment by their families, and stretching to a desperate search for someone able and willing to mend their broken psyches.
Much of the attention being focused on this film centers on Berry's Oscar-nominated performance, and there's no doubt she deserves it. Eschewing all traces of glamour and refinement, Berry makes Leticia a desperately lost soul who's started believing she deserves the abuse heaped on her.
But equally as good is Thornton. His Hank is at odds with himself. Living under the thumb of a spiteful father who's the human equivalent of a bucket of bile (Boyle makes him unrepentantly and unrelentingly hateful), he's got nowhere to go and no one to care for. The motions are all he knows, all he can depend on; going through them may cause pain, but it's a pain he's become inured to.
But then Leticia stumbles into his life, and Hank doesn't have a clue how to relate to a genuine human being. His efforts at pleasing her, and his fumbling, tentative attempts to right himself in her image, are touching - we can feel the pain - and heartbreaking, because we know the secret he can't tell her, a secret that, by rights, should undermine all his best efforts.
Monster's Ball presents something of a mixed bag; director Marc Forster gets so caught up in making us feel connected to his characters, he sometimes neglects making them feel honestly connected to each other. But the film has a lot of right in it, including an ending that's suitably uncertain, but fraught with possibilities.
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry
Directed by Marc Forster
Released by Lion's Gate Films
Rated R (Adult language, violence, sexuality)
Running time 108 minutes
Sun score: ***