Dir: Marc Forster. Us 2001. 110 mins.

Monster's Ball, Marc Forster's follow-up to his digitally shot and experimental Everything Put Together, which made a splash at Sundance Festival two years ago, is a decent, well-intentioned interracial drama, substantially elevated by the performances of Billy Bob Thornton and particularly Halle Berry. Although marred by a schematic screenplay that bluntly telegraphs its social and humanist messages, the film still manages to tell a compelling love story between a white redneck security guard, who is a product of racist brainwashing, and the black widow of a convict he has just executed. The best marketing hook for this Lions Gate release is Berry's breakthrough performance, which was cited by the National Board of Review and nominated for a Golden Globe, and is also likely to be one of the five Best Actress Oscar nominees on February 12. One of the holiday season's most overrated pictures, probably due to the disappointing mainstream fare surrounding it, Monster's Ball has divided critics, but seems to have found its most appreciate public in the arthouse circuit. In its first four weeks of release, the film, which is being platformed, has grossed $837,244 from 11 screens after four weeks. It is also screening in competition at the Berlin film festival next week.

Co-written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos, Monster's Ball belongs to the Hollywood tradition of the socially-conscious melodrama, a genre that has been almost completely reclaimed by independent film-making now that the studios seldom tackle serious, issue-oriented films anymore. In this respect, as an earnest drama that propagates redemption and harmonious co-existence between the races, the film represents a respectable achievement and welcome statement. However, artistically speaking, Monster's Ball leaves a lot to be desired, particularly in the writing department.

Indeed, the film's chief problem is its stereotypical, almost one-dimensional, portrayal of all the white males, who represent three disparate generations of the Grotowski clan in the Deep South. Grandfather Buck (a disappointing Peter Boyle) is a retired corrections officer, who's now hooked to an oxygen tank, spending most of his time at home reading newspapers. Now in his old age, Buck wears his proud racism and unrepentant chauvinism on his sleeves. In broad strokes, it's established that Buck' racism has influenced and even contaminated his entire family. His son Hank (Thornton), who also works as a prison guard, is a bigot who can't even tolerate the sight of his black neighbours playing on his property.

Sonny (Ledger), Hank's son, who also works as a death row guard, is a rebellious youngster who spends his leisure with a local prostitute, engaging in impersonal sex. It's indicative of the entire script that in the first - and weakest - reel, each of the characters is associated with one personality trait or behavioural pattern. Hence, Hank is the kind of guard who throws up before executions take place. Sonny, the most "sensitive" of the three men, lacks the guts that it takes to do his job. Unbeknownst to his grandfather or dad, Sonny befriends a black farmer's young children.

Across town, the audience is introduced to Leticia (Berry) and her obese, candy-addicted teenage son, Tyrell (Calhoun), whom she physically and mentally abuses. Leticia's convicted husband, Lawrence (Combs), is about to be executed in what the guards refer to as a monster's ball, an act that deprives the condemned of a lawyer or preacher. While the films evokes the gloom and doom of prison life, it still suffers in comparison with Tim Robbins' far superior anti-capital punishment drama, Dead Man Walking.

The drama improves once Lawrence is executed and Sonny dies in an accident, which clears the way for a contrived meeting between Hank and Leticia. Although coming from vastly different backgrounds, and subscribing to disparate value systems, their paths fatefully intersect. It's in these scenes that director Forster, who is Swiss-born and American-educated, shows his delicate touch in creating a distinctive social and physical milieu from which his two protagonists experience alienation, seeking a way out of their respective loneliness and oppression. Foster is also adept in the way that he stages an audaciously graphic sex scene between Hank and Leticia, one that's marked by spare dialogue and is carried through gestures and silences.

Sophisticated viewers might raise serious doubts about the credibility of the interracial affair, although to Forster and his writers' credit, Monster's Ball is probably meant as a parable of absolution and redemption at a time when American society has never been more sharply polarised along racial and social lines. Whether Monster's Ball represents a major leap forward in terms of a mature cinema of issues and ideas is also debatable for, as mentioned, the film's politics are too blatant and explicit. That said, the burden of history, both contemporary and distant, as it passes from one generation to the next, is highlighted through Leticia and Hank's valiantly heroic effort to break free of their chains and establish their worth as human beings.

The brilliant Billy Bob Thornton has done good work: this season alone, he's also appeared onscreen in the crime comedy, Bandits and the Coen brothers' noir, The Man Who Wasn't There. But the real revelation here is Berry, still best known for her TV portrayal of troubled actress Dorothy Dandridge, for which she won a Golden Globe. In a radical departure to the minor part she played in Warren Beatty's political satire, Bullworth, and the minor, unworthy part she played in the John Travolta vehicle, Swordfish, Berry rises to the occasion and delivers a multi-nuanced breakthrough performance that places her at the front rank of leading ladies.

Pro co: Lee Daniels Entertainment
US dist: Lions Gate Films
Int'l sales: Lions Gate Films International
Exec prods: Michael Paseornek, Michael Burns, Mark Urman
Prod: Lee Daniels
Scr: Milo Addica, Will Rokos
Cinematography: Roberto Schaefer
Prod des: Monroe Kelly
Ed: Matt Chesse
Music: Asche and Spencer
Main cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Heath Ledger, Peter Boyle, Sean Combs