Halfway through Monster’s Ball, Mark Forster’s bleak Southern-gothic tragedy of redemption, you’ll think it can’t possibly get any worse. And mercifully, you’ll be right. If you can tough out the bleak procession of calamities that make up the film’s first hour, then it’s all uphill from there. The drive toward redemption of the second half, as grimly relentless in its way as the compulsion to disaster in the first half, seems right, inexorably due, unforced. It’s a movie that wants to take you as low as it can, only to send you out feeling like there might be a little bit of hope after all.

The film is set in backwoods Georgia–Flannery O’Connor country–and the set-up reminded me of that great parody of O’Connor’s penchant to top grotesquerie with catastrophe, wherein an inbred couple gives birth to a deformed kid that’s just a big, ugly ear, only to be told it’s deaf, too. Billy Bob Thornton plays Buck, a corrections officer preparing for the execution of a convict, Musgrove (Sean “P. Diddy” Combs). In an early scene, we see Musgrove’s wife Leticia (Halle Berry) and his son Ty (Caronji Calhoun) taking their leave of him. The electrocution is presented straightforwardly, without sensationalism. In its way, it’s as powerful as the climactic execution of Dancer in the Dark, and leagues ahead of the exploitative melodrama of Dead Man Walking. But that’s only the beginning. It is followed by a violent onscreen suicide, an unexpected hit-and-run, another death. The hard luck is laid on so thick that the audience in the screening I attended laughed repeatedly, to break the sense of oppression.

But nothing on the screen invites laughter. For the first hour, the bleakness is unrelieved. Like In the Bedroom, Monster’s Ball earns its putative seriousness essentially by deploying literary values of mainstream middlebrow fiction–an attention to traditional “depth” characterization, plots built around a few carefully placed psychological details meant to give an impression of fullness, and a solemn acknowledgment, not exactly of a tragic sense of life, but of the brute fact that bad things happen to good people. The equation of strict solemnity with artistic seriousness is a pretty silly idea of art, of course–and it’s exactly what much of the best independent filmmaking of the last decade has reacted against.

Watching Monster’s Ball, you might fear you’re in Sling Blade territory, since this movie stars Billy Bob Thornton and even has Puff Daddy to match that movie’s Dwight Yoakam. For the most part, though, Forster, as director, steps back and lets the script and the actors do the work. Visually, the movie has no style to speak of, beyond a pervasive mutedness: muted colors, muted sounds, muted tones. The flourishes are few, and this is as it should be, except it means that when they come they stick out like severed thumbs. (Ordinarily the thumbs would only be sore, but this movie specializes in worst-case scenarios.) Overall, the film feels highly controlled, reined in–as if it were trying to resist the middlebrow leanings of its own sensibility–but that quality, in the end, makes the emotional explosions of the first half more powerful, and the gathering reserve of the second half more persuasive.

What brings the movie to some fruition is the acting. The script is both emotionally open and tentative–clotted and underdeveloped at key moments–and that combination gives the actors the freedom to find the truth of it. As Sean Combs plays him, Musgrove is both beaten down and buoyed up. We know little about his past, but we see he thinks his impending death has liberated him to love his wife and son in a way it’s implied he couldn’t before. He looks at them with emotions that are charged but reticent–as if he doesn’t want to feel he’s putting too much weight on them with his love–and when he smiles his tight, quick smile, it expresses a kind of stunned relief, as if he couldn’t believe he’d finally gotten hold of an unselfish love. Combs plays the part as a man who doesn’t want to die but never expected anything different, and is dazzled to have found what little he could before they pulled the switch. It’s heartbreaking: We see that he’s discovered new pleasures as he’s about to be killed, and knows it, and mourns their loss–not his own–even as he tries to get as much out of them as he still can.

Combs’ few scenes really stay with you: Despite the modesty of the role’s conception, the performance is also very showy, in its way. Halle Berry’s beautiful performance builds much more slowly, and has no formative epiphanies to define it. It even risks seeming a little disjunctive: The first few times we see her, she’s articulating a very different kind of spirit each time. But the final effect is of complex unity in the character. She’s scarred, vulnerable, listless but angry–beaten down in the same way that her husband was. When her character flies into a rage at her son, Berry shows you, even in the rawness of her anger, how much she’s going to regret it later. In a way, the movie is about her reawakening, but the shadings Berry finds in the role make the character’s experience more moving than just that. She’s finding new things, we realize, but seems unexpectedly happy to realize that she recognizes them, or to find out that she was never really that numb to begin with.

Billy Bob Thornton’s performance can’t be called surprising–unless you’re inclined to be surprised, as I am, that he doesn’t wreck the movie. His role in Sling Blade was to serious acting what those middlebrow melodramas are to serious movies: the hung head and slackened jaw, the squinched-up eyes, the toneless, ironed-out voice, a few stiffly turned tics hardened into joyless caricature and then foisted off as realism. After that–the worst “acclaimed” performance I can think of–it was a relief to see him underplaying in movies like A Simple Plan. Even the underplaying was hammy, like some of Orson Welles’ acting at its worst, making it seem both bloodless and bovine. But that quality of self-satisfaction played well in The Man Who Wasn’t There, where it seemed suited to the specialized ambience of strangulated self-parody. Here, that element is all but gone; Thornton’s performance is quiet and emotionally direct, assured without seeming self-assured. It shows a poignant understanding of a man who wants to change his life without wanting to have to meet revelation head on.

To reject seriousness itself is as philistine an attitude as to assume that surface solemnity is the same thing as genuine seriousness. Monster’s Ball is serious, not because it adopts the trappings of current serious movies–though it sometimes does–but because it is really concerned with understanding: It’s somber, compassionate, unsparing and humane. EndBlock