In a Deep South prison, black convict Lawrence Musgrove (Combs) prepares to be executed, watched over by white prison guards Hank Grotowski (Thornton) and his son, Sonny (Ledger). Don't expect "Monster's Ball" to get any easier as the story develops - this is a powerful movie.
While her husband waits to meet his maker, Leticia Musgrove (Berry) is left to get on with life and look after her obese son (Calhoun). She eventually meets the taciturn guard Hank and they forge an unlikely but tender courtship. Their feelings are all the more incredible as Hank is a half-hearted racist, thanks to the KKK-style philosophy of his invalid father (Boyle). To reveal any more would ruin the movie.
Much has been made of the pivotal sex scene, where our budding lovers shed their clothes for an explicit bout of rumping. Surprisingly, rather than an excuse to see Berry naked, it ends up being one of modern cinema's most heart-rending love scenes.
This is an actors' movie and everyone acts their hearts out - even Combs (better known as rap star P Diddy), who puts in a great supporting performance as the plot's doomed catalyst. But the film belongs to the central pair, who fill their characters with such nuance and pathos that any credibility strains are easily forgotten. This is by far Berry's best-ever performance and Thornton reminds us that there are few, if any, leading men who can convey sadness and hope almost simultaneously in just one minimal glance.
Directed like an unobtrusive spectator taking in a beautiful but dark painting, "Monster's Ball" could have been merely an acting showboat. Instead, it's intimate, gruelling, and in some strange way, uplifting.