Leticia Musgrove (Berry) is the wife of a Death Row inmate (Combs) and mother of a troubled obese teenager. Hank Grotowski (Thornton) works, like his retired father Buck (Boyle) and his own boy Sonny (Ledger), as a guard at the pen, proudly professional to the bitter end. Leticia is imprisoned by hardship and disappointment, Hank by the steely reserve required for his job and by a disciplinarian machismo inherited from a racist dad. What brings them together is chance; what they have in common is death, pain, rage, loneliness. You'd expect this cast to produce fine performances, and Berry and Billy Bob are merely the laurel-stealing protagonists. Praiseworthy too is Schaefer's 'Scope camerawork and Addica and Rokos' tough but sensitive script. Director Forster doesn't hurry things; a hell of a lot happens before the leads meet, and even then it's not cute. Violence (familial and institutional), deep-seated distrust and hatred (this is the South) cast long shadows, and an electric-chair scene ensures we remember love's seldom simple. At the same time, Berry and Thornton play so well that the pitfalls of miserabilist chic are mostly avoided: hope is always felt as a presence or possibility. If certain heavier-handed sequences don't quite gel, the (un-Hollywood) ending is nevertheless perfectly judged, persuasive and unusually graceful.