A slow, dramatically inconclusive rumination on race, class and the healing power of love, "Monster's Ball" does little more than toy with the passions of two Georgia families torn apart by violence. The first is headed by Lawrence Musgrove (Sean "P. Diddy" Combs), a soft-spoken death-row inmate who, as the film begins, is saying his final farewells to his wife, Leticia (Halle Berry), and son, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun). The second is the family of Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), a virulently racist corrections officer whose job it will be to lead Musgrove to the electric chair.
Hank has inherited his noxious prejudices from his redneck daddy, Buck (Peter Boyle), but their tradition of hate has not filtered down to Hank's boy, Sonny (Heath Ledger), a third-generation prison worker who doesn't have the stomach to accompany his father on Musgrove's final walk.
In the first sign that this story (written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos) will have no use for complex ideas, Lawrence is depicted as a near-saint, with no hint offered of how he landed on death row in the first place. He spends his last hours encouraging Tyrell's artistic impulses and bolstering his self-esteem. (The boy, he says, is "the best of what I am.") Hank, in contrast, treats Sonny with undisguised contempt. The closest they come to familial bonding is retaining the services of the same hooker.
Lawrence's execution is one of a series of showy stunts the script employs in its single-minded drive to bring Hank and Leticia together in a romantic (or at least sexual) relationship. But you can't act a stunt, which may be why the crucial moments of personal transformation the tale requires are essentially lost. Instead, the hardened bigot and his newly widowed paramour bounce like pinballs from one emotional stance to the next, with most of their motivations and reactions utterly internalized. ("Internalized" is here offered as a polite synonym for "nonexistent.")
With hands-off director Marc Forster leaving the actors to their own devices, Thornton fares the best. He's particularly frightening in the earlier scenes when Hank's glacial hatred still has some focus. Boyle, on the other hand, appears so eager to help sell the movie's grand statement about racism (i.e., "It's bad") that he never looks totally natural in his role. His Buck remains a construct, a self-conscious posture that lacks the lived-in corruption the part requires.
Berry personifies the gulf between "Monster's Ball"'s aspirations and its accomplishments. To impersonate an underclass object of desire, she sprinkles a few incongruous "dats" into her Ivy League diction and tones down her makeup and wardrobe just enough to look vaguely funky (but not enough to risk alienating her modeling contacts). In the movie's notorious nude seduction scene, she unleashes a torrent of scenery-chewing hysterics that should by no means be confused with a performance. This isn't acting; it's slumming, and not very skillful slumming at that.