Judaism teaches that God created Adam alone in the world to teach humanity that whoever destroys one soul destroys the whole world, and whoever saves one soul saves the whole world.
“Levity,” a new film from writer-director Ed Solomon, follows Manual Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton), a convict just released from prison after serving more than 20 years for murder. He returns to society—and his old stomping grounds. For the first 30 minutes of the film, he doesn’t even crack a smile, as if his lips can’t confront gravity and actually curl upwards.
He winds up helping a street-wise preacher, Miles Evans (Morgan Freeman), operate a safe haven for troubled folk deep in the city. As Miles’ right hand, Manual comes to be known as “Godboy”—appropriate and ironic, Solomon has said, since Manual played God and took a life.
Manual is adrift in his own skin, scared of a God he doesn’t even believe in, as Miles points out.
“I’ve talked to preachers. I’ve talked to nuns. I’ve read some things,” Manual says. “With respect, I just don’t buy it.”
“I know,” Miles tells Manual. “It seems like people are making up [stuff], so they can feel good about all the pain, all the cruelty, loss, violence, suffering, death, famine, bigotry, small-mindedness, repression, oppression, depression. You want me to keep talking?”
“The point is,” Miles concludes, “I believe the lie. Never underestimate its power. As for me, well, I’m lying through my teeth.”
One doesn’t know if Miles is lying, or lying about lying—and that’s part of his appeal.
As Manual struggles through each day, he makes more friends, including Sofia Mellenger (Kirsten Dunst), a strung-out young woman from the ‘burbs who heads downtown each night to get wasted. And then there’s Adele (Holly Hunter)—a lady Manual takes an interest in. He turns to her for a human connection … and more.
Manual’s past weighs him down like a ton of bricks. This idea—so central to the narrative—is wonderfully dramatized during a particular scene about midway through the movie.
Manual stands on a bridge, throwing snow cakes off and watching them splat on the sidewalk. Abner, the boy Manual killed, appears on the bridge.
He asks Manual what he’s thinking about.
“Gravity,” Manual answers.
“Yeah, well, it don’t last long,” says Abner.
And one of Manual’s snow cakes, instead of obeying natural laws and falling to earth, floats into the sky. The moment has an unexplainable nature to it, and it works.
“Levity” is perhaps a quintessential Billy Bob Thornton film. “Monster’s Ball,” “Sling Blade” and even his appearance in “The Apostle” must have made “Levity” seem a natural fit.
Themes of forgiveness, redemption, goodness, caring, justice, violence, choices, history—they infuse Thornton’s body of work and make for meaningful films.
Each member of the cast turns in a stellar performance. Kirsten Dunst is particularly striking. Her Sofia is simultaneously naïve, confident, genuine and needy.
The film uses a voice-over by Manual, which helps draw the audience into his psychological realm. For example, Manual talks in the voice-over about making amends. He says he read a book that talked about five steps for such: acknowledge the wrongdoing; feel remorse; make right with neighbor; make right with God; and act differently when put in the same situation again.
But other filmmaking techniques bring the audience into communion with levity and gravity as well.
Thornton’s weighted performance, his isolation in cinematographer Roger Deakins’ frames, and the music by Mark Oliver Everett all contribute to this sense of “atmospheric density.”
Manual is a murderer. He’s let go, but he’s not set free. To be free is to breathe. And as “Levity” simply but powerfully demonstrates, Manual can’t breathe because his world, his atmosphere, is dense with his own history. And that history is governed by a single act of playing God and taking life.
“Levity” is grounded by many themes, perhaps none more important than the destroying and saving of worlds and souls. Solomon has understood that the best way to explore that elemental matter is to walk alongside a man capable of both destroying and saving.
To join Manual, audiences must be willing to breathe thickly, walk heavily and live densely. Only by so doing will they understand the delights of “Levity.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Read our interview with Ed Solomon.
Visit the “Levity” Web site.
Click here for information about free “Levity” screenings in select cities.
MPAA Rating: R for language
Director: Ed Solomon
Writer: Ed Solomon
Cast: Manual Jordan: Billy Bob Thornton; Miles Evans: Morgan Freeman; Adele Easely: Holly Hunter; Sofia Mellenger: Kirsten Dunst.