Before Antwone Fisher was even born, his father was gunned down by an ex-girlfriend. When he was born, it was inside an Ohio penitentiary where his mother was serving time. Afterward, he was adopted by God-fearing folk who were as fervent in their beatings as they were in their prayers.

Some critics have unfairly chosen to dismiss Antwone Fisher as Good Will Hunting in the Navy. To be fair, Fisher, based on the real-life man’s autobiographical screenplay, certainly is cut of similar narrative cloth — a charming, but troubled and violence-prone, young man guided toward redemption by a caring psychologist. Though a fine film in its own right, Hunting nonetheless had a guy-movie jokiness to it that smoothed over the deeper issues.

For his directorial debut, co-star Denzel Washington doesn’t go that route, instead making a haunting and resonant film covered with a potent Southern Gothic chill. Fisher’s early years were so traumatic that he wears not being raped as though it were a merit badge, in a scene that serves almost as a nervous-laughter comedic icebreaker.

Throw in a breakthrough performance from Derek Luke in the title role (as good as any other contender for a Best Actor Oscar) and Antwone Fisher is an effective, focused drama.

As the film opens, Fisher, a petty officer in the U.S. Navy, delivers a tersely worded warning to a fellow officer getting in his face. The next message Fisher delivers is a violent punch to the face — a blow that demotes his rank and lands him in the office of naval psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Washington). After an initial, prolonged silence, Fisher steadily opens up to Davenport about his troubled past and a bond between the two is developed through some snappy verbal exchanges.

As actor and director, Washington handles well the conflict this presents to the character. Davenport has only three sessions with Fisher, after which he must write a recommendation to Fisher’s commanding officer. Not only does Davenport like Fisher, it is clear he will need much more than three trips to the couch. In one of many fine sequences, Luke plays up Fisher’s anger in an impassioned plea for more time with the doctor.

The heartbreaking details of Fisher’s life are spelled out in episodic flashbacks that are profoundly unsettling, equally laden with violence both physical and emotional. Washington creates genuine dread in the scenes of abuse through camera moves, endless silences and the body language of young Malcolm David Kelley (also debuting), who plays Fisher at age 7.

The movie is not all gloom-and-doom, though, with some levity put in play thanks to Fisher’s nervousness over a budding romance. In the film’s funniest scene, he and Davenport role-play the couple’s first date, resulting in a line that pays off in a subtle comedic way throughout.

Even more so, the muck is balanced by Luke’s naturally affable performance, which thoroughly convinces us that Fisher is just a good person shackled by his tormenting demons. Luke is an immediately captivating performer, able to engage our curiosity from the very first frame. It’s an astounding film debut, made even more impressive by Luke’s work in the film’s climax. What could have been an overwrought, teary speech instead keeps with the character’s quiet-but-tough resolve.

Washington’s presence as an actor in this story is mostly integral without being overwhelming. The only misstep is in a rather poorly developed sub-plot involving Davenport’s souring marriage. This plotline is resolved in a rather iffy coda that wouldn’t feel so phony had the previous scene not felt like the better ending.

Still, it’s a remarkably confident, visually striking directorial debut from an actor who has long enthralled audiences with intense performances and now has done so with an occasionally disturbing story. That the film also rings true as a deeply felt, emotional experience establishes it as its own film.