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Billy Bob bears heavy load in 'Levity'

Friday, July 11, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

A deeply, darkly philosophical parable called "Levity" contains precious little of the title commodity: It refers to what is missing, not present, in a man's life and soul.


Rating: R for language and adult themes

Players: Billy Bob Thornton, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter, Kirsten Dunst

Director: Ed Solomon

Critic's call:


He is Manuel (Billy Bob Thornton), just released -- to his own surprise -- after serving 21 years for the murder of a young convenience-store clerk during a robbery. The victim was a sweet-faced boy named Abner. Manuel can never forget that face because he never wants to; he has been staring at the kid's newspaper photo on the wall of his cell for two decades.

Now wandering "free" for the first time, Manuel is still very much a prisoner of his own mental jail. Drawn back to the neighborhood-scene of his crime, he looks and acts like a ghost -- startled out of his nightmare by the inexplicable ringing of a pay phone.

He picks it up. It's Miles (Morgan Freeman), who runs a soup kitchen for the homeless and delinquent. Manuel will get a job, a place to stay and a meal ticket -- none of which he was seeking. What he seeks is infinitely more difficult to find: forgiveness and redemption.

This debut film by independent writer-director Ed Solomon benefits from beautiful performances by Thornton and Freeman, matched by those of the two women who may or may not prove redemptive: Holly Hunter plays Abner's sister, unaware that Manuel was his killer. Kirsten Dunst is a poor little rich girl, bent on self-destruction.

It is a slow, somber, thought-provoking affair, with cinematography and seedy settings to match. You'd never guess its location is Montreal, where, in this manifestation, the snow is never idyllic but morose.

Morose, too, is Manuel. His guilt-ridden sensitivities provide him with an awareness of the necessary steps for making amends: knowledge of his sin, remorse, restitution and getting right with God. But he doesn't believe in God. And he doubts that any good acts can make up for one terribly bad one.

"Why be afraid of a God you don't believe in?" asks Freeman.

The answer is either obvious or unknowable, akin to that of other biblical and metaphysical issues raised by Manuel's dilemma. How does any man -- saint or sinner -- become "good"?

The wisdom of Solomon's script addresses that bravely but rather lugubriously. Thornton's acting is so convincing, his white-haired presence so haunting, that "Levity" ultimately succumbs to gravity. Its demands on the audience are big. Its reward is not entertainment but hope.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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