The year is 1990; it's been a family tradition to work as a guard in the death house at the Georgia State Penitentiary, and so far three generations have done it: grandfather Buck Grotowski (Peter Boyle), son Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), and grandson Sonny (Heath Ledger). Not only that, the three all live in Buck's house. Although Buck is now confined to a wheelchair and a walker he's the embodiment of the unreconstructed Southern cracker - a vicious racist, misogynist tyrant. Hank hasn't thought much about the larger questions, but when he runs the squad conducting the electrocutions he makes sure everything is done properly, including giving some consideration to the human being he's killing. Only Sonny has questions, and it's obvious he really doesn't belong there. On the other hand, Sonny and Hank share the services of a local prostitute, in a way that gives us a glimpse into two sad and hollow lives.
As the film begins it's time to prepare for the execution of the murderer Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs), who leaves behind his wife Letitia (Halle Berry) and young son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun). Lawrence is not a good man; he tells Letitia that fathering Tyrell is the only good thing he ever did. When she brings Tyrell for a last visit she tells Lawrence "I'm only doing this for your son."
And then the deed is done - the electrocution is shown to us by director Marc Forster with unsparing frankness - but the doing of it opens an unrepairable crack in the relationship between Hank and Sonny. It also brings Hank into contact with Letitia, first as a helping hand, then - after another pair of tragedies strikes both of them with hammer blows - into a growing relationship that meets some unspoken kind of need: sexual, emotional, even ultimately love. The rest of the film deals with the ways in which Hank and Letitia grow into that relationship.
Thornton plays here with as little affect as is possible and still retain some sense of humanity. He withholds, he speaks in the flattest tones, he jumps back from almost every expression of feeling. Berry, one of the most beautiful women on the planet, plays totally unaware of that beauty; she focuses on being Letitia. Among other things she is in great financial need; the way in which she deals with Hank's offers of money and assistance, her suspicion of his motives, is painful to watch, yet her ultimate acceptance is completely believable. Hank must travel a long way in the course of the film, from unthinking bigot to a new discovery of himself as a gentle and generous man, and Thornton is admirable in letting us in, slowly, to his difficult journey. This is a brave and powerful film, and a good corrective to the smarmy sentimentality of a film like "The Green Mile."
"Monster's Ball" is not likely to hit big box-office numbers; it shows, instead, that there is still a way for small, thoughtful films to find their own thoughtful audiences.