I read a book that was written in the 11th Century. Man said there was five steps toward making amends. The first involved acknowledging what you did. The second involved remorse. The third involved making right with your neighbor. Like if you stole his chicken, you'd have to go and bring him another. Only then were you able to go to step four, which was making it right with God.
But it wasn't until step five that you could really get redeemed. It had to do with being in the same place, in the same situation. That as it goes, you'd go and do something different. Only I can't bring Abner Easely back like he was some stolen chicken. Certainly made sure of that 23 years ago. And I don't believe in some God that's gonna open His arms to me even if I did. So there go steps three and four. As for step five, time makes sure we're never in the same place twice, no matter how much we wish it. Which is why, for me, I know I'll never be redeemed.—Manuel Jordan
A modern morality play about forgiveness and restoration, Levity boasts a lineup of marquee talent that any director would sacrifice his or her left arm to corral: Academy Award winners Billy Bob Thornton (Best Original Screenplay in 1997 for Sling Blade) and Holly Hunter (Best Actress in 1994 for The Piano), triple Oscar nominee Morgan Freeman, and hot-as-a-pistol young star Kirsten Dunst, plus legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (five Academy nominations, including one for Fargo).
Or, to put it another way, it's a somber, thoughtful metaphysical drama written and directed by the guy who scripted Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Super Mario Brothers, and Men in Black. Hey—stranger things have happened.
Facts of the Case
You'd suppose that a man who just won his release after nearly 23 years in prison would be leaping for joy. But not Manuel Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton, The Man Who Wasn't There, particularly any longer in the life of ex Angelina Jolie). Manuel was perfectly content to spend the rest of his live in the Big House if the State so willed it because he believes that's where he belongs. Manuel has spent every day of those 23 years staring at the photo of the 17-year-old convenience store clerk he gunned down in the middle of a holdup gone haywire. He's sorry for his crime. He's willing to fulfill the life sentence he earned because of it. The parole board, however, sees in Manuel a rehabilitated felon who's no longer a danger to the citizenry, so on the street he goes.
Through no fault—or even effort—of his own, on his first night of freedom Manuel lands both a job and lodging in the rescue mission run by street preacher Miles Evans (Morgan Freeman, whose production company fronted a chunk of Levity's $7.5 million budget), a man with a skeleton or two rattling about in his own dark closet. But Manuel's true mission in civilian life is to strike up a friendship with Adele Easely (Holly Hunter, Moonlight Mile), the sister of the boy he killed all those years ago. Manuel believes that by doing kindnesses toward Adele, in some minuscule way he can begin his long, anguished path toward saving his own soul.
Along that path, Manuel finds another wayward soul to help: poor little once-rich girl Sofia Mellinger (Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man, The Cat's Meow), the daughter of a now-desolate ex-pop-star mother who's following Mom's descent into the dregs at the bottom of a liquor bottle. Sofia is outwardly a ray of perverse sunshine amid the gloom, constantly laughing and wisecracking, but her perkiness is a mask for a bitter, aching hopelessness and self-consumptive resignation.
The confluence of these four lives—with gentle, taciturn Manuel at the center of the karmic vortex—spins a tale of the uniquely human penchant for overcoming the tragedies and errors of the past without ever truly escaping them.
If Billy Bob Thornton isn't careful, he's going to find himself typecast as these weird creepy characters whose lives in one way or another involve prison. Oops…too late. However, unlike his mentally deficient killer in Sling Blade or his cold-hearted redneck correctional officer in Monster's Ball, Thornton's Manuel Jordan is an intellectual, self-educated man who has spent more than two decades turning the pivotal incident in his life over and over again in his mind like a gemstone in a lapidary tumbler. In many ways, Manuel is many of us: a basically good person who, in one foolish, feckless moment of youthful confusion and brio, committed one horribly inhuman act. Manuel has indeed killed, but he's not a killer. Still, this singular stupid mistake has done to him something he cannot undo, despite the fact that we sense, somehow, that he's a better man for having undergone the consequences of his crime.
Ed Solomon, the writer and director of Levity, conceived the character of Manuel years before the final screenplay was produced. While working as a counselor for troubled youth, Solomon encountered a juvenile offender who kept a photograph of his murder victim on the wall of his cell. Solomon yearned to tell the story of what that haunted young man might become. Levity is that story.
And it's not a bad one, as such stories go. Sure, Solomon lays the symbolism on with a trowel at times—it's no accident that the protagonist's first name is Manuel, as in "Emmanuel"—God with us—or that his last name is Jordan, as in the river where Christ was baptized. But the lesson Solomon wants to share with us is worth the sharing, despite the director's occasionally heavy hand. (In fact, in an interview clip in the making-of featurette, Billy Bob Thornton describes the movie as "the independent film version of a Frank Capra movie.") We can always do worse than being reminded that the way to overcome evil—especially the evil within ourselves—is by a liberal application of good. Certainly, Hollywood does worse by us all the time, with most of the heartless, dispassionate dreck it churns out season after season. Levity may be trite, but at least it's trite about something.
As one might suppose from the list of awards and nominations appended to the names of the four principals, the acting in Levity is dead solid perfect. Thornton is predictably good, taking a subtly different spin on the kind of thing he's done an awful lot of lately. He's remarkably effective, in fact, playing a man whose emotional life is sealed up deep inside his core, but whose stony face and monotone voice betray volumes about what's going on in there. Holly Hunter, an actress who, frankly, I find grating and unappealing most of the time, is equally good as the sad, wistful woman whose heart has been irrevocably shattered by the tragedy in her long-ago past. I didn't buy her incomprehensible gravitation toward Thornton's character—in real life, there's no way this single woman whose life has been marred by urban violence lets this bizarre freakazoid stalker type carry her groceries home, much less invites him into her house for a chat—but the chemistry between them is delightful, surprisingly fresh and earnest.
In fact, none of the relationships between the characters really works on paper—they sell only because the monumental talents of the actors sell them. These aren't real people, but cardboard cutouts moving about at the mercy of the script. Consequently, we constantly find them doing things—like inviting total strangers into their homes, as each of the other three principals does with Manuel—not because it's what people would actually do, but because the script needs us to see them doing these things. That feeling of heightened unreality that pervades the characters prevents us from becoming quite as involved in them as we need to be, until these four exceptional actors reach out from the screen, grab us, and draw us in. Solomon is fortunate that he convinced Thornton, Hunter, Freeman, and Dunst to do this picture. Without them (and the deft, atmospheric photography by the incomparable Roger Deakins—ripping image after image from the Edward Hopper sketchbook—and the magnificently poignant score by Mark Oliver Everett), its manipulation and incessant ponderousness would likely have been insufferable.
Levity comes to DVD life courtesy of the Sony Classics imprint. The anamorphic transfer is beautifully, though not perfectly, accomplished. There's a modicum of spottiness and film grain at the very beginning of the first reel, but things clear up quite nicely thereafter. Colors are warm (okay, as warm as possible, given that the movie was shot in Canada in the middle of winter) and lifelike throughout the film, contrasts are strong, shadows possess solidity and depth. Only a bit of recurrent edge enhancement defaces an otherwise attractive and natural picture.
Sound is delivered via a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The primary issue being dialogue, the track gets the job done with clarity. Composer Everett's score—much of it played on a cheap, out-of-tune piano, according to director Solomon—backfills the surrounds, providing full, rich emotional resonance.
Solomon teams with editor Pietro Scalia and Adam Merims, one of an army of producers credited here, for a low-key audio commentary. The laid-back style of the trio suits the elegiac pacing of the film—you wouldn't want to hear Solomon and company lapsing into Bill-and-Tedisms here—but these guys are so relaxed you can envision them recording this track while reclining in Barcaloungers after a big Sunday afternoon dinner. If you can suck down enough caffeine to go the distance, you'll get some quality insights into the production of the film.
The other key piece of the supplement puzzle is a fifteen-plus-minute featurette comprised mainly of interview snippets with Solomon, Merims, and the four principal actors. The writer-slash-director snatches most of the face time, offering information that's mostly repeated on the commentary track. The actor interviews are unique and therefore more interesting. The key revelation is that Billy Bob Thornton's three co-stars were each on-set at different times—Morgan Freeman's scenes were filmed first, then Kirsten Dunst arrived and shot the scenes involving her character, and Holly Hunter was the Johnny-come-lately. Until I heard the stars discuss this revolving-door set-up, it hadn't occurred to me that only Thornton shares screen time with any of the others.
Trailers for Levity, Laurel Canyon, and the foreign film Man Without a Past conclude the offerings.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The dictionary serves up two definitions for the word levity. The more common of the pair is "excessive frivolity," a commodity totally absent in this film. But the word can also mean "instability" or "changeability," which is the sense, I believe, that's in play here. Every one of the four main characters in Levity is engaged in a futile quest for the ability to alter his or her past (to "change their stars," as Heath Ledger's father urges in A Knight's Tale)—a quest for levity, if you will.
Four compelling character studies, conducted by four powerful actors in search of a more linear plot and a concrete reason to be here. Worth seeing if you're a fan of any of the principals, or have the patience of Job to wait for something dynamic to happen. If auteur Ed Solomon had been able to devise a more genuine framework in which these people could exist and interact, he might have really had something Oscar-worthy here. As it stands, it's still interesting and, in its quiet way, life-affirming.
The State having seen fit to release prisoner Manuel Jordan as a rehabilitated man, the Court finds no evidence that warrants his return to custody. His parole is extended and he is free to go, under the watchful eye of his probation officer (a seemingly important figure who never appears in the film, incidentally). We're done here.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Writer/Director Ed Solomon, Producer Adam Merims, and Editor Pietro Scalia
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