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Twist of fate 

Monster's Ball takes a wrenching look at race relations

Can you compare a movie to Greek tragedy without sounding like gushing hyperbole? The high drama of Monster's Ball achieves so much, against such low expectations, that it invites almost absurd superlatives.

Out of nowhere, director Marc Forster and screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos arrive to offer an insightful, deeply felt treatment of Southern race relations. They capture the rural South without sugarcoating or stereotypes. The fiery confrontations never sound hysterical, and the story's coincidences seem like the workings of fate more than the convenience of plot. And Monster's Ball gets Oscar-worthy performances from some of the least likely actors.

Billy Bob Thornton's Hank Grotowski stands in the middle of three generations of Southern correctional officers. He lives with his retired, ailing father Buck (Peter Boyle) and his messed-up son Sonny, who works with him on death row at the prison (filmed at Louisiana's notorious Angola). Buck takes sour pleasure in using terms like "porch monkey," revealing that racism is as much a part of the family heritage as prison work. Hank subscribes to his father's views, as when he brandishes a shotgun to chase African-American kids off his property.

Hank and Sonny await the execution of Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs, dropping his "P. Diddy" sobriquet), who's been condemned for 11 years. Perhaps Musgrove's wife Leticia (Halle Berry) once loved him, but life's difficulties have ground such feelings from her, and she pays him a final visit just so he can say goodbye to his son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun). His impending death is only the most immediate of Leticia's problems, which also include eviction notices and a car on the verge of collapse.

She makes what little money she can as a night-shift waitress at Hank's favorite diner, with neither realizing that he's about to participate in the execution of her husband. The film frequently shows its "dead man walking" rituals and the electrocution from distances, via security cameras or mirror reflections, which make Lawrence's last moments all the more affecting, especially with Combs' soft-spoken acting. We get an instant of his point of view when the hood goes over his eyes, giving the audience a flash of claustrophobic terror.

Hank and Leticia each shoulder difficult burdens -- he's complicit in a racist way of life, she's bearing the brunt of a callous social system -- which takes a toll on their parenting abilities. Indifferent to his son's anguish, Hank treats Sonny with contempt for making an error during an execution. In an even more harrowing scene, Leticia catches her obese son Tyrell hoarding a candy bar, and rather than address the source of his eating disorder, subjects him to verbal and physical abuse. Both will live to deeply regret their treatment of their children.

Circumstance gets Hank unwillingly involved in the lives of Leticia and Tyrell, as if destiny demands he face his responsibility to his fellow human beings, regardless of skin color. With no other emotional outlets, Hank and Leticia turn to each other in a raw, cathartic sex scene that's more about release than intimacy. But it's a much more meaningful act than Hank and Sonny's (separate) visits to the town prostitute, who's as unsentimental and businesslike as a public utility.

With its modest budget, restrained tone and vivid performances, Monster's Ball is a film akin to its higher-profile contemporary In the Bedroom. What distinguishes the two is that in Bedroom, once you glean the story's direction, you can anticipate exactly where it's going to go -- in that film, a sense of inevitability isn't necessarily a drawback. But in Monster's Ball, stunning events happen seemingly without warning, though in retrospect they're perfectly consistent with the story. If you see many movies, it's a rare relief to find one that never stops surprising you.

Watching the portrayal of Leticia, you might at first think, "Who is this terrific actress? She looks just like Halle Berry!" None of Berry's prior work prepares you for how she disappears into her role here, giving Leticia a genuinely quiet dignity, without making shows of noble suffering or having fun with her unsophisticated manner. Leticia faces one wrenching episode after another, yet Berry gives true responses to every one.

As Hank, Thornton seems like a man out of a William Faulkner novel, someone embodying the ugliest aspects of a way of life, yet willing to reach beyond them if he's capable. He, Boyle and Ledger have sharply different backgrounds, yet all three credibly play Southern men of the same tortured bloodline.

Writers Milo Addica and Will Rokos are working actors who give themselves small roles in the film (Rokos plays the prison warden). Not surprisingly, they make Monster's Ball a somber affair, but find some laughs in meting out poetic justice to Boyle's character. The only problem with Monster's Ball is that it leaves you wanting more. The script doesn't allow quite enough time to digest its final revelation, although the ending is more ambiguous than it initially seems. And Hank's conversion experience ultimately seems a little too complete, especially in a film so attentive to life's shades of gray.

In showing the workings of happenstance and how the sins of the parents are brought on the children, Monster's Ball treads the same ground as classic Greek drama, despite its Southern roots. Yet the film is not a tragedy. It tells its story in the service of hope rather than despair, suggesting that people can be redeemed and reconciled, despite all evidence to the contrary.

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