Published April 7, 2003
Levity by Ed Solomon is a movie that seems to have been named for what they left out of it. A heavier, more ponderous picture it is hard to imagine. Even the other characters, none of whom are exactly a barrel of laughs themselves, remark on the lack of a sense of humor of Manuel Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton), the hero — yet nothing is done anywhere in the film to lighten up a little. Instead we get a ponderous but progressive meditation on guilt and redemption which not only takes itself far too seriously, but offers scarcely a moment of self-detachment.
Jordan is a lugubrious ex-con who tells us in voiceover of the remorse he feels for his murder of a young man 23 years ago in a convenience store robbery. To prove it, he insists to the parole board that he doesn’t want and doesn’t deserve forgiveness and is happy in prison, but they release him anyway to wander the streets of an unnamed northern city (it was filmed in Toronto) that is supposed to have been the scene of his crime. Summoned by a ringing pay phone, he becomes a custodian at an urban mission run by a weird preacher called Miles Evans (Morgan Freeman) who provides youthful party-goers at a nearby club with parking spaces in return for 15 minutes of their attention at one of his rambling sermons.
The reverend doesn’t offer a whole lot of spiritual guidance, either to his unbelieving employee or to the party-goers, though he does respond to Manuel’s guilt by telling him that “You could get lucky; God could grade you on the curve.” But he doesn’t really believe in God either, telling Manuel that prayer for him is “a one sided conversation. God don’t participate. If I see him one day I’m going to whup his holy ass.” But the mission is doing some good in this troubled neighborhood, or so we are to suppose, providing gang members with well-intentioned lectures and the recreational activities that do-gooders are always so ready to believe are an acceptable alternative to them to shooting each other.
Among the gang-boys are associates of Abner (Luke Robertson) a nephew and namesake of Manuel’s long-ago victim who, as it happens, has been wounded in a gang-related shooting and is bent on revenge. In a further remarkable coincidence, Manuel is stalking — but in a good way — this boy’s mother and the sister of his victim, Adele (Holly Hunter), who doesn’t know who he is and who appeals to him to save her son from the cycle of urban violence, though she doesn’t put it that way. Miss Hunter, you may think, is way too upmarket to be at home in this urban world of gangs and street crime, but neither the racial nor the economic element in actual street crime is of any concern to the solemn moralism of Messrs Solomon and Thornton.
For in addition to the weighty theme and the zombie-like seriousness of Manuel, the heaviness in the movie includes hints of allegory. Manuel’s very name is short for Emmanuel, or “God-with-us,” and we learn that his street name back when he was a teenager robbing convenience stores was “Righteous.” A spoilt rich girl, Sofia (Kirsten Dunst) calls him “God-boy,” which may be another form of homage to Billy Bob’s Jesus complex. Certainly we are meant to see hints of the divine (without prejudice as to its existence) in his act of self sacrifice at the end in which a kind of redemption depends on the liberal principle that “We’re all capable of anything.”
That, at any rate, is the idea with which Manuel seeks to prevent young Abner from finishing off Jimmy, his deadly enemy from a rival gang who has previously shot him and is now seeking him with murderous intent. Abner appeals here to his own crushing load of guilt, just as if there were no difference between the murder of an unoffending convenience store clerk and the killing of a deadly enemy who is bent on killing you. Some of us, especially at this difficult time in world affairs, may have more sympathy with young Abner’s view that “What’s right is right; if I don’t get him, he’ll get me.” But obviously we lack some of the filmmakers’ moral earnestness.