Halle Berry stars as Leticia Musgrove, a young African-American mother whose husband is on death row for an undisclosed crime. Her husband (Sean Combs) is executed by a white father named Hank and his son (Billy Bob Thornton and Heath Ledger, respectively). After the abusive mother's only son is killed in a freak accident, Hank (whose estranged son commits suicide) becomes entangled in Leticia's life, marked by crippling grief and great misfortune. They begin an affair, Leticia all the while not knowing that her new love was the one who killed the father of her dead son. Will she overcome this, or will she succumb to the familiar isolation she has faced nearly all of her life?
The performances are all marvelous. Thornton and Ledger maintain a quiet anger and sadness, Combs and Peter Boyle (as Hank's racist father) are both great in brief supporting roles, but nothing compares to Berry. Usually typecast as the beautiful girlfriend or token black character, she brings exquisite calibration to her work, a raw fear combined with pride and numbing insecurities. She also has some stunning hysterical moments in the film, when she realizes who Thornton's character is and when she finds out her son is dead at the hospital. The latter moment emblazons itself on your memory, as she bangs on the glass screaming with gutteral howls "My baby! Please don't take my baby!" before collapsing into a heap. Berry, despite some recent poor script and genre choices, proved herself in this film, winning a well-deserved Oscar as Best Actress in a Leading Role against such contenders as former winners Sissy Spacek and Judi Dench. Berry's performance ranks among the best in recent memory.
Excellent acting and good writing make this film easily one of the finest of the last few years.