For the first time since Losing Isaiah in 1995, Halle Berry steps into a role she's shown reluctance to play: a working-class woman of limited intelligence and refinement, who speaks with a dialect and vocabulary that invokes cruel stereotypes. In the dreadful comedy B.A.P.S. and the wicked satire Bulworth, she offered spoofing variations on that character type, but only here does she stare it down. The result is not only the performance of her career, but one of the best onscreen in 2001. The stratospheric praise given her work led some critics to honor the rest of Monster's Ball with equal vigor, but the film is more a collection of great parts than a complete whole. It's certainly full of incendiary moments; surprising deaths blend into lurid and uncomfortable sex scenes, then into vitriolic bursts of racism, all with a disaffected resignation that's bracing. But one wishes director Marc Forster and screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos would have extracted more of a discernible message from these isolated pockets of pain and rage. The minimalism of their approach leaves many questions. The viewer never learns, for example, why Billy Bob Thornton's corrections officer despises his son (Heath Ledger), which might have explained more of both characters' actions. As an actor-driven work, however, Monster's Ball crackles. Sean Combs shows unexpected depth and dignity as the doomed inmate, and Thornton offers another portrayal of wordless hurt that nicely complements his work in The Man Who Wasn't There. Peter Boyle, returning to the big screen after a three-year absence, personifies the bull-headedness endemic to racism in the South.