2-1/2 stars (out of 4)
Billy Bob Thornton is an actor with a natural talent for mixing the mundane with the charismatic. He can take ordinary or unattractive characters - like the desperate film noir barber in "The Man Who Wasn't There" or the sullen killer in "Sling Blade" - and make them burn with buried life and intelligence on the screen. Looking haggard and haunted in his role as Manual Jordan, ex-con and redemption seeker, Thornton is right in his element in writer-director Ed Solomon's "Levity," a film of almost paralyzing gravity and large ambitions that, almost inevitably, it can't quite meet.
Here, as in "Sling Blade," Thornton plays a character not just twisted but torn. Thornton's Manual, unwillingly paroled from prison after 22 years of a life sentence for murder, is genuinely remorseful, a real seeker of expiation. But unlike Karl, the rustic killer of "Sling Blade," Manual is drained of menace. We know he won't, can't, kill again.
With his long, wispy hair and mournful eyes, his air of withering sadness and pent-up shame, Manual seems out of sync in almost every scene in the movie, floating through the wintry Montreal cityscapes of "Levity" as if he were one of the unseen angels in Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire." Something like an angel is probably what he most wants to be: empty of human desire, wiping out old bad deeds with new good ones. But should the movie let him achieve that particular grace? Couldn't it use a more devilish side first?
Solomon's and Thornton's portrait has an almost Robert Bressonian spiritual intensity, set in a disturbingly bare, everyday American world. Manual committed his murder as a reckless, thoughtless youth and has been paying for it ever since. He is obsessed with his victim, a boy named Easley, whose photo he constantly carries. After his parole, Manual returns to the scene of his crime, the cold, barren city, then finds Easley's older sister Adele (Holly Hunter) and, exploiting the fact she doesn't recognize him, starts a relationship. He also begins volunteering at a strange, threadbare local youth center run by a mysterious, cynical idealist named Miles Evans (Morgan Freeman), who, like Manual, we suspect may be driven to goodness by some heightened awareness of his own badness.
In a way, Manual's quest is absurd from the start. Goodness, at least in this milieu, is tainted. The saints are too close to sinners and vice versa. The very air seems thick with guilt, and the other main characters - Adele's street-tough teenage son Abner (Geoffrey Wigdor) and Sofia (Kirsten Dunst), the promiscuous teen queen who hangs out at the community center - are infected with some of the same painful duality. "Levity" does deal very obviously in redemption; maybe that's its own sin of good intentions.
Most American movies wouldn't dream of trying to take you on a spiritual odyssey, but that's exactly what Solomon aims for. This slight-looking but weighty film has ambitions that are intense pleasures and failures that are almost majestic. Beautifully cast and acted, smartly written, done with excruciating care and glowing Roger Deakins cinematography, it's a film that, in some ways, suffers from its own seriousness, the very passion and guts that make it special. Levity is exactly what the movie avoids but really needs.
Of course, "Levity" is an ironic title - even more so if you know Solomon made his mark as a writer with "It's Garry Shandling's Show" and gut-punchingly funny movies like the first "Men in Black" and the two "Bill and Ted" pictures. This debuting writer-director has a flair for outrageous humor and plugged-in topical gags, but he just doesn't employ them in "Levity." Solomon seems to be trying to play down, or even choke off, his own commercial facility and lay bare a dramatic depth he hasn't often revealed before.
But something is missing throughout. Solomon wants an Ingmar Bergman-like sense of angst and vulnerability. Here, the moral and spiritual depth needs a counterbalance to keep them vital.
That doesn't mean "Levity" (the opening-night film at the last Sundance Film Festival) doesn't work as a movie. It works well, but in ways the audience isn't anticipating. As Manual, a classic urban wanderer and one-roomer, Thornton conveys an awful dislocation that makes his sour-faced quietness improbably magnetic. Grimly touchy, he moves among characters seemingly stronger or more open than he: Miles, the funky pastor with a secret; Adele, the brisk single mother; and Sofia, the driven sexpot. These three have a bite and urgency that fixes the pattern; they suggest the larger life form which Manual is alienated, the hip liveliness his own world lacks.
Can we redeem ourselves from our worst? "Levity" has an answer, but not a completely satisfying one, since it's the one we've been expecting. Good as this movie is, and strong as its intentions and execution may be, "Levity" seems, like Manual, imprisoned in its own sense of mission and gloom, seemingly unable to crack a smile. After the first "Men in Black" (the good one), we wouldn't have expected a film like this from Solomon - one that deliberately ignores almost everything that won him the chance to make "Levity" in the first place. But having exposed his serious side here, he needs to exploit his lighter side, to mix the hues. That could have given "Levity" real weight, and touched it with the grace and feeling its makers so obviously desire.
Directed and written by Ed Solomon; photographed by Roger Deakins; edited by Pietro Scalia; production designed by Francois Seguin; music by Mark Oliver Everett; produced by Richard N. Gladstein, Adam J. Merims, Solomon. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday, April 25. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: R (language).
Manual Jordan - Billy Bob Thornton
Miles Evans - Morgan Freeman
Adele Easley - Holly Hunter
Sofia Mellinger - Kirsten Dunst
Senor Aguilar - Manuel Aranguiz
Mackie Whitaker - Dorian Harewood