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Monster's Ball Review

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Corrections Officer Hank Grotowski heads the prison squad supervising Lawrence Musgrove, awaiting execution after 11 years on Death Row. Distressed by his duties, Hank's son is also on the team, while Musgrove's emotionally drained wife Leticia struggles

★★★★

Way to go, Halle! On one of the too-rare occasions Berry has had an opportunity to show what she can really do (memo to her agent: dangling in chains in Swordfish, not a good idea), she seizes her role as an exhausted woman at the end of her rope with such naked desperation and need that it's hard to watch - and harder to forget. Billy Bob Thornton certainly should also have been in the Oscar stakes, as he is riveting as a man of few words who initially seems unforgivably cold and harsh, but subtly and miraculously evokes understanding and pity.

Reduced to barest basics, this is a prison drama/romance, but it's about many things, all of them to do with compassion, humanity and the need for love. Fathers and sons are a major theme. Widower Hank is the son of an irredeemably selfish, nasty, racist, retired prison guard (Boyle playing the spectacularly horrid old Buck). Hank's sensitive, unloved son (Ledger's effective Sonny) is a third generation prison guard, bullied into the bitter family inheritance and rituals of small, mean, dusty lives.

They are imprisoned as surely as the cop killer sitting on Death Row.The condemned man, Musgrove (Combs doing a smart and impressive volte-face from his cool comedic role in Made), also has a browbeaten son. The bashful, ungainly boy has inherited his father's artistic talent and has eaten himself into obesity on the junk food and chocolate bars that are his only comfort.

As the sole woman to feature (besides a matter-of-fact prostitute who gets both Sonny and Hank's brisk, boorish custom), Berry's weary waitress Leticia is a bravely unflinching portrait of a woman so crushed, she's a drunk, abusive mother, with a palpably agonising need to feel something, anything.

Hank and Leticia would be no computer's dating match in a million years. However, the weight of cares and catastrophe on both of them is what makes it possible that these two, when their paths collide, could so touchingly, vulnerably, and tentatively, try to find their way back to life together.

As is so often the case with emigre directors, German-born, Swiss-raised, N.Y.U. graduate Forster brings an alert eye for specific detail and mood to the American scene. The heavy, stultifying atmosphere of the poor, rural, Southern setting dominates everything. Written by two struggling actors who showed remarkable tenacity and integrity by holding out through six frustrating years of negotiations with studios anxious to soften the script, this is a very adult, very humane drama.

Powerfully affecting, with superb performances that add complexity, depth and feeling to an uncompromising drama. It seems dour on the surface, but is an unsentimental, yet achingly eloquent, affirming story of transformation and hope.