Some films are deliberate and profound. Others are simply slow. Ed Solomon’s “Levity” falls into the latter category. The ironically-titled picture is a fable of redemption with a capital “R,” the story of an ex-con carrying a heavy burden of guilt who tries to make amends for his past misdeeds and in the process touches the lives of others in a positive way. It’s obviously a serious and well-intentioned film, but a stylistically ponderous, dramatically muddled one as well. While one can hardly expect that viewing it would put actual convicts on the road to repentance and reform, it could nonetheless serve a useful function in prisons if it were screened for agitated inmates in lieu of sedatives. It would certainly have the same effect, and could save the penal system a substantial amount in medicinal expenses.
Billy Bob Thornton, in a minimalist performance that rivals his work in “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” plays Manuel Jordan, a lifer who’s astonished to find himself paroled after 22 years in the slammer. Still haunted by the memory of the young convenience store clerk named Abner Easely (Luke Robertson) he killed in a robbery, Manuel returns to what’s supposed to be Chicago determined to make expiation. (I say it’s supposed to be Chicago, because apart from the snow the location shares almost nothing with the Windy City. A hint to filmmakers: it’s not enough to hang a “Chicago Rush” sign on the wall of a subway tunnel unlike anything in the city to provide an authentic sense of place.) Sporting a Jesus haircut that remains miraculously unmussed throughout, Manuel accidentally falls in with Miles Evans (Morgan Freeman), an inner-city preacher who gives him a room and a position as a handyman. The job brings him into contact with Sofia Mellinger (Kirsten Dunst), a poor little rich girl who parks her car in the preacher’s lot while attending wild parties down the street. His main goal, however, is to connect with Adele (Holly Hunter), the hard-nosed sister of his victim, to whom he hopes to make a kind of reparation. Concealing his identity, he gradually develops a tentative romance with her and tries to protect her son (Geoffrey Wigdor), also named Abner, from street violence that threatens his life. Meanwhile he’s occasionally visited by the spirit of the Abner he’d killed two decades earlier, who offers him forgiveness and encourages him to start his life anew.
The basic thrust of the film–the struggle of a murderer to deal with his feelings of guilt–is potentially gripping, but Solomon fails to dramatize it effectively. None of the characters are appreciably more convincing than the attempt to turn a Canadian location into an Illinois one, and though the cast is a starry one, none of the fine performers–Freeman, Hunter, Dunst–can persuade us that these are real, flesh-and-blood people rather than a writer’s contrivances: their motives are never adequately clarified, and as a result their actions often come across as arbitrary. Thornton has proven in the past that he can maintain a sense of stillness and repose indefinitely, and he does so again here–but Manuel Jordan never ceases to be more symbol than individual. Visually the picture is impressive for a low-budget effort–cinematographer Roger Deakins is a pro, and achieves the mood of solemnity that the writer-director’s striving for. But since the script doesn’t manage to tease out the subtleties of its theme, Deakins’ efforts, while skilled, merely reinforce the general feeling of turgid predetermination rather than adding layers of meaning to it.
The title, incidentally, is best explained in a rooftop scene–a conversation between Jordan and the ghostly young Abner that shows a snowball made by the dead boy rising into the sky rather than falling to the ground, as Manuel’s does–a poetic representation of how guilt has to be made to fly away rather than permitted to weigh one down. The moment has an ethereal quality, a hint of magic that briefly justifies the picture’s name. Unhappily the rest of “Levity” remains resolutely earthbound, like a sermon delivered very deliberately, and at excessive length, by a well-meaning but uncharismatic minister. Under the circumstances, dozing off in the pew is at most a venial sin.