starring Billy Bob Thornton, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter, Kirsten Dunst
written and directed by Ed Solomon
by Walter Chaw Sort of Frank Capra without the subtlety, Levity is a relentlessly moralizing film that finds Billy Bob Thornton in his second role (Monster's Ball) in three years as a man responsible for another man's death who proceeds to woo a close relation of said victim as a means of atonement. The greatest irony of a film about forgiveness is that it's destined to inspire the opposite in most viewers, but with a professionally underachieving cast of good actors (Morgan Freeman is now into his eighth year of not trying very hard), a master cinematographer (Roger Deakins), and the sort of story that attracts said actors like atoning moths to the mainstream arthouse flame, the picture is not altogether useless.
Manuel (Thornton) is released from the pen after serving about twenty-two years of a life sentence for killing the brother of Adele (Holly Hunter). A hangdog voiceover (better in The Man Who Wasn't There) informs that Manuel would like to make amends somehow, but believes himself to be damned (though he doesn't have faith in God). Answering a payphone call in an S-Mart parking lot in the middle of the night, Manuel comes under the employ of ersatz preacher-man Miles (Freeman, doing Sling Blade for some reason, mm-hmm), convinces Adele to go out on a date with a homeless drifter, and learns how to bring a little light into everyone's lives while learning a little about himself in the process.
Shuffling through Deakins's sharply drawn urban environments, Manuel is a vacant-eyed creep who doesn't flinch when a knife is brandished around his neck, nor even really when he's shot. Thornton's been here before in The Man Who Wasn't There, playing a character so internal as to be almost comatose. Where in the Coens' film this plays like a supreme joke, a satire of the classic noir anti-hero, here it's more like a reference to George Romero's zombie flicks. Thornton is so convincing as a cadaver in Levity, in fact, that it's reasonable to wonder why Adele would agree to date his character not even considering that he's a convicted felon, living in the basement of a halfway house, and confessed to stalking her for days.
Written and directed by Ed Solomon (the scribe behind the two Bill and Ted films), the picture feels like it has its heart in the right place and its head over the moon. It boils down to nothing more consequential than an angel-out-of-water bit from The Bishop's Wife school of gravid spiritual nonsense, fulfilling its obligations to its congregation of story workshop cast-offs before boarding a train bound for better things. Shot with Deakins's typical flair and finding itself breathing in the scant screentime afforded Hunter's thankless single mom pastiche, Levity is earnestly brain dead in its proselytizing way: a street corner minister holding mass for a crowd of people who won't remember the vehicle--much less the message--in ten minutes flat. Originally published: April 18, 2003.