The movie chronicles a Southern correctional officer who, after the suicide of his son, strikes up an unexpected romance with a woman after the death of her husband (a death row inmate) and son.
For her performance in the film, Halle Berry won the Oscar for Best Actress—the first black actress to win in that category.
This film provides examples of:
- Abusive Parent:
- Leticia goes berserk on her son when she finds out he's been hiding snacks from her, mocks him for being obese, and hits him when she proves on the weighing machine that he hasn't lost weight.
- Hank gets mad at Sonny for puking during the executionee's last walk and gets into a fight with him later. Afterwards, when Sonny asks if he loves him, he answers no. Hank's father also calls Sonny weak when they bury him.
- Ambiguous Ending: Leticia eventually finds out that Hank is the former prison guard who executed her husband, but she doesn't confront him over it and as the credits roll it's left ambiguous whether their relationship will survive this revelation.
- Black Gal on White Guy Drama: This is not only a source of conflict, but the main one at that. A white death row guard begins a relationship with a black woman after he walked her husband to the electric chair, which he keeps hidden from her. She finds out the truth by the end, but it's left open if they'll remain together.
- Burn Baby Burn: Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) burns his corrections officer uniform after quitting the job.
- Coitus Ensues: The infamous sex scene, which many viewers regard as a Big-Lipped Alligator Moment.
- Death Row: Hank and his son are both death row guards. Hank particularly gets into it with his son when Sonny screws up a condemned man's "last walk" by breaking down puking in the middle of it.
- Driven to Suicide: Sonny fatally shoots himself through the heart after a confrontation with his father Hank.
- Famous Last Words:
- "Yeah. Push the button". Lawrence Musgrove, after the executioner asks him if he has any last words
- "Well, I've always loved you." Sonny to Hank, before shooting himself in the chest
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Vera is a prostitute Hank meets rather often. She appears to be kind and friendly as she never says anything harsh to her and always speaks in a sweet manner.
- The Grunting Orgasm: In the sex scene mentioned above.
- Love Father, Love Son: Not love, but Hank and his son visit the same prostitute in town. The sex itself in both instances is about as mechanical as you can get.
- No Dead Body Poops: When a condemned criminal is to be electrocuted he is shown with adult diapers.
- Professional Sex Ed: This seems to be why Hank takes his adult son with him to visit a prostitute.
- A Real Man Is a Killer: Variation: Hank and his son Sonny are officers who work on Death Row and the story opens as the latter is about to participate in his first "last walk" of a condemned man. (The title refers to the party that used to be thrown the night before an execution.) However, Sonny loses his nerve and vomits during the walk. Hank is humiliated and furious and confronts him the next morning; the fight ends with Sonny committing suicide. The remainder of the film has Hank struggling with this loss (and notably, his own father chalks Sonny's fate up to weakness).
- Sex for Solace: Leticia has sex with Hank after the deaths of her husband and son. Hank himself had recently lost his son Sonny.