Directed by Marc Forster, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Sean Combs and Mos Def.

Marc Forster's arresting film opens in a US correctional facility where a young black man, Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) is on death row. The night before he is due to be executed, his wife Leticia (Halle Berry) and their son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun) visit to say goodbye. As Musgrove has been an absent father and neglectful husband, it's a tense encounter and an insight into a family struggling to overcome class and poverty.

Three generations of the Grotowski family have worked in the same institution. Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) and Sonny (Heath Ledger) tend to their retired father Buck (Peter Boyle) in between shifts at the prison. Living in the South, they have been raised with the spectre of racism, kept alive by Buck while the rest of his family struggle with their conscience.

On Musgroves's last night on earth he is allowed a 'monster's ball' - a favourite meal and a last chance to pursue his love of drawing. Musgrove sketches the guards and bonds with Sonny, who has always questioned his line of work. This causes tension between father and son and has a tragic outcome. In the aftermath, Hank quits his job and encounters Leticia whose life has been hampered by further turmoil. United in loneliness, they are tentatively drawn to each other until a passionate encounter cements their feelings. Their relationship is threatened by Buck's ugly racism, forcing Hank to choose between love and familial loyalty. He must also convince Leticia that love sees no colour and that they have a future together.

Every location in the film replicates the claustrophobia of the correctional facility. The family home is a crucible of racism and unhappiness, Leticia's dilapidated house filled with cheap possessions symbolises her stifling poverty, while Hank's favourite diner represents narrow-minded routine. The theme of self-imprisonment runs through the film and is represented by poverty, hatred, racism and familial ties. All of the characters are either resisting change or trying to embrace it. What they eventually realise is that accepting things whether we like them or not is a key to our development as individuals. Leticia reconciles herself to the fact that love means accepting all aspects of someone, even if we don't like some of the things we discover.

Billy Bob Thornton's usual under-stated brilliance makes the film but Berry earns her Oscar for a gritty but vulnerable performance. Peter Boyle is excellent as the wheezy patriarch struggling with modernity while Heath Ledger's contribution is short but intense. The dialogue is well paced and the silences say as much as the talk does. This is a well-scripted, brilliantly acted film which makes some astute points about issues we should all care about.

Sinéad Gleeson