Thornton's reserved performance, involving lots of aimless shuffling around town and empty stares into nothingness, is well suited to the rhythms of Solomon's glacially-paced film (which he wrote as well as directed); his Manual a man who, having been unceremoniously dumped back into society against his will (he believes he deserves to stay in prison for his crime), doesn't know how to pick up the pieces of his non-existent life and move forward. With long thinning grey locks and a weathered, creased face, Manual is like a ghost forever doomed to haunt the locale of his greatest error, and when he moves through a subway station tunnel directly after leaving the Big House, it's not surprising to find that the crowds rush past him without acknowledging his presence. Thornton plays the character as though he had shriveled up from the inside out, and his expressions of bemused confusion and timid fright convey the feelings of unwieldy guilt and desperation that plague his conscience.
Through a stroke of luck, Manual answers a ringing pay phone outside the very store in which he committed his crime years earlier and winds up working for an idealistic preacher named Miles Evans (the beguilingly commanding Morgan Freeman). In an attempt to help those who nightly patronize the club located across the street from his tattered inner-city community center, Miles allows the club-goers to use his parking lot provided that they listen to him preach for ten minutes before heading into their den of decadence and vice. Manual's new job brings him into contact with Sofia Mellinger (an underutilized Kirsten Dunst), the rich daughter of a former pop singer whose reckless drug and alcohol abuse strikes Manual as a cry for help, and the two strike up an unlikely friendship that's not very different from the one Manual begins with Adele Easely (Holly Hunter), the sister of the boy he murdered. Adele doesn't know Manual's true identity, but her teenage son Abner (Geoffrey Wigdor) is on the road to murder and prison, and she soon finds that this kind and generous stranger is the only person she can to turn to for help. Manual knows he can't ever be truly forgiven for his transgressions, although he discovers the key to salvation in Miles' advice that "If you want to help yourself, try helping somebody else." The camera languorously pans around Thornton (courtesy of regular Coen brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins) with a lithe weightlessness - seemingly wanting to carry Manual through his journey from damnation to repentance - that contributes to the narrative's modest solemnity. Once the story's foundation has been established, it's easy to see where things are headed, the film's predictability reinforced by the writer/director's wise refusal to embellish his sobering tale with gimmicky surprises and overblown dramatics. Yet even if Manual and Adele's relationship devolves into something unbelievable and the action drags at times, Thornton's sturdy performance and Solomon's assured directorial deliberateness give Manual's quest for levity and absolution a palpable sense of agonized longing, and make the quiet, unassuming Levity reverberate with a low-key grace.
The DVD features a commentary track and a making-of featurette. I'm still confused about how this movie ever got made, but never mind that.
Hardy freakin' har.
Run time: 100 mins
In Theaters: Friday 29th August 2003
Box Office Worldwide: $209.2 thousand
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Production compaines: Echo Lake Entertainment, StudioCanal, Sony Pictures Classics, FilmColony
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 35%
Fresh: 31 Rotten: 58
IMDB: 6.5 / 10
Director: Ed Solomon
Screenwriter: Ed Solomon
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton as Manual Jordan, Morgan Freeman as Miles Evans, Holly Hunter as Adele Easley, Kirsten Dunst as Sofia Mellinger, Manuel Aranguiz as Senor Aguilar, Geoffrey Wigdor as Abner Easley
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