Armed with a puke fetish and a penchant for rack focus, Swiss director Marc Forster (Everything Put Together) plunks us into the sorry little life of Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton). Hank's a by-the-book kind of guy, supervising executions for the Georgia Department of Corrections, and it's his job to send repentant death-row inmate Lawrence Musgrove (Sean "P. Diddy" Combs) into the great hereafter. Assisting in this procedure is Hank's less-than-enthusiastic son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), whose lapse of protocol in the con's last hours -- let's just say he spews The Green Bile -- sends his typically detached father into a typically fateful rage.
Before all paternal hell breaks loose, however, we hang with our leads and learn their tics. First of all, everybody's life is rendered insanely depressing by television, which is employed entirely as a denial drug. The damned box blares in the creepy Grotowski house, where racist Hank and open-minded Sonny battle over a neighboring black family (Mos Def, Charles Cowan Jr. and Taylor Lagrange) under the grotesque leer of Hank's decrepit pop, Buck (Peter Boyle). Meanwhile, across town, the doomed Musgrove's increasingly desperate wife, Leticia (Halle Berry), can't even afford a bra. She stares with her depressed, chunky son, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun), at a program about yuppie morons sky-surfing, so far removed from their crumbling reality that it may as well be Star Trek.
For a while, it looks as if Monster's Ball may trade entirely on cinematic redundancies -- the prison shuffle, the meticulous preparation of the electric chair and its soon-to-be-dead meat -- but, fortunately, there's mood to this elegant story. Its foundation is the stuff of filial disappointment: Tyrell growing up without a dad, Sonny succumbing to his own father's loathing for him ("You hite me!' shouts Ledger, eyes firmly fixed on the dialogue coach). Caught between Buck's poisonous worldview and the disappointment of bringing Sonny into it, Hank hardly has a hope in hell.
According to this story, however, the South isn't just about paternal violence and racism, it's about convenient ka-wanky-danks. Death shows up to claim significant characters -- harrowingly, they are written off as errors, baggage -- and pretty soon Hank and Leticia find themselves enmeshed in a love to change the world. Granted, this sounds cheap, but somehow it works. Because Leticia's a waitress and Hank hankers for chocolate ice cream, it's a good match. Late in the film, he asks her what flavor she likes, and if she had coyly purred, "Vanilla," I'd have added some barf to the screen. But taste wins out; she likes chocolate, too.
Forster approaches the material with subtle lethargy, almost as if the local humidity and pathos make it difficult to keep the lens trained on his talent. In this America, where we're all judged by our rapidly disintegrating cars and one is only as powerful as one's gun collection, the lingering despair is pretty much a given. Yet there's a mission beneath the murk, to root out the humanity buried under a nation's short history of cruelty and ignorance. The director follows through, coaxing powerful and unsettling emotions from his cast, including Combs as the doomed artist who has learned to see beauty in a human face and Boyle as the rotten patriarch who likely never will.
Ultimately, the movie's obvious sociological concerns frame a more intimate exploration, focusing on the healing power of sensuality. For both Sonny (born without a clue), and Hank (whose wife, like his father's, offed herself), romantic "love" consists of paid and startlingly expeditious sex with a hot blond nobody. Once Hank and Leticia get it on, however, Thornton gives us a man no longer sweeping his feelings under his rug, and Berry -- who takes the movie's climax way too literally -- displays a heretofore unseen breadth of sorrow, rage and hunger. Their volatile chemistry explodes beyond the project's thematic limitations, leaving one wondering why we went through so much stupidity in the first place.