Like a Ghost
“Levity is by no means a standard Hollywood movie,” says Ed Solomon, by way of stating the obvious. “Initially, the film was conceived to be in a city teeming with people. And we decided to set it in the winter, and against that densely populated feeling. So it takes place in a starker landscape. The character Billy Bob plays sort of moves through the movie the way he moves through the city, kind of like a ghost. It’s a guy who doesn’t feel that he belongs in the world, I mean, our world.”
Solomon’s thinking about his film for On the Set,” the “making of” featurette on Columbia’s DVD, is accompanied by a piano gently plinking Levity‘s theme song. This soundtrack is unnecessary, and indicative of the film’s inclination to prompt your responses to fairly complex emotional and moral situations. This even though, as Holly Hunter observes, writer-director Solomon appears to be “very comfortable with investigating a kind of unknown quality about being alive.” At its best Levity grants some substance and some interest to this abstract notion; occasionally, it lapses into sentimental instruction.
For the most part, the film comes at this “unknown quality” from an intriguing direction, the incessant grappling with memory that shapes experience. Memory seeps into every beautiful frame of Levity (shot by Roger Deakins, who discusses his own efforts to render a slightly unreal reality in the featurette), sometimes strangely visceral and always difficult. Manual Jordan (Thornton) is an ex-con, released against his will after serving 22 years for the murder of a 17-year-old convenience store clerk named Abner Easley (played in flashbacks by an appropriately pale Geoffrey Wigdor). Manual cannot stop thinking about what he did, but he remembers it in ways that suit his needs, that is, to feel guilt and pain, to pay—repeatedly—for what he’s done.
“What I remember most from before was people’s voices,” Manual says. “Floating on the wind and laughing, like everyone was in on something, like it all mattered somehow.” You might glean from this that Manual isn’t feeling particularly in on anything; in fact, he’s become rather attached to his cell, where he keeps a newspaper photo of Abner, commemorating the crime. (Incredibly, 23 years later, the newspaper remains unyellowed, poetic license inspired by writer-director Ed Solomon’s own memory of a man he once tutored at a maximum security prison; in that case, the prisoner had killed someone as a teenager and kept a photo on his cell wall.) The parole board commutes Manual’s life sentence to time served, almost as another sort of punishment: “You don’t have that choice,” they pronounce, when he says he’s “happy” in prison and would rather not leave.
And so, Manual goes forth on a mission to confront and maybe reconcile himself with his memory of that fateful day. Returning to the city (shot in Montreal), where he committed his sin, Manual takes to watching Abner’s sister, Adele (Hunter). He observes her leaving her apartment building, trudging through snowy alleys; he follows her when she goes shopping. She soon spots him, as he’s a bit of a striking misfit, lanky-framed and sunken-eyed, with gray hair drooping to his shoulders, and wonders if he’s following her. Well, yes, and he wants to carry her bags home for her. Only in a movie, even one made for only $7 million, would she accept this solicitation and… a few scenes later, date the guy.
Indeed, the commentary track on the DVD—by Solomon, producer Adam Merims, and editor Pietro Scalia—helps to clarify just how well it does work out. Full of memories of their own, about the shoot, the lack of money, the brilliance of their crew and cast members, the three lay out their conceptions and reminisce in detail about shot set-ups and scene constructions. As Manual walks toward a group of homeless men (one played by the wonderful Dorian Harewood), for instance, he hears laughter. “This idea of laughter that you hear,” offers Solomon, “I wanted it to run throughout the film, laughter just offscreen, characters in the other room, just outside the window, engaged in life. And everyone has a sense of humor except Manual.” This observation goes a long way toward explaining not only the film’s title, but also its attitude toward its protagonist. Though he takes himself very, very seriously, thank goodness, Levity does not.
Manual’s lack of social skills is understandable, of course, given that he’s been locked away all this time. He finds a place to stay and a job, which come to him completely by chance, or, perhaps within the film’s weird sense of humor, fate. On his first night in town, he stops by the convenience store where he killed Abner, and in the parking lot, a pay phone rings, and on the other end is Miles Evans (Morgan Freeman, for whom Solomon wrote the role, and of whom he does a funny impersonation on the commentary track). This godsend runs a community center, where he preaches the gospel to kids in exchange for a parking space. Lots of kids come by each night, as the center is located across the street from a pounding-dance-music club. He hires Manual to look after the cars, and to hold after school sit-downs with a crew of black and Hispanic boys whose basketball hoop is removed by the city.
One of the club’s frequent patrons is Sofia Mellinger (Kirsten Dunst), wealthy daughter of a one-hit wonder now immersed in booze and drugs. Sofia’s angry and self-hating, and so, each night she disappears into the club, where she sinks into a stupor. Self-confident even in her self-loathing, Sofia calls Manual “God Boy” and stands up to the basketball kids, recognizing that their woo-wooing isn’t so threatening as they seem to think it is. Ballsy white girl impresses the boys, who invite her to hang out and play pool down at the center. (Her refreshing interactions with these kids actually work against the film’s other inclination, which is to use boy-gang violence as a too-easy plot device toward a rising-action sort of “crisis.”)
Sofia is similarly instructive for Manual, though he imagines that he’s going to be her teacher. When he carts her home one night, following her lapse into unconsciousness at the club, Manual observes that she’s squandering her life. This makes him mad, especially when she can’t even remember that he drove her home, memory being a crucial sign of morality for him. Soon, though, she gets him to recall for her what happened; then he sees her taking care of her dilapidated mum. Voila, he sees that she’s not just a self-squandering child, but a lost soul, sad and aching, a reflection, in her snotty, privileged, but also sensitive way, of him.
All this twisting of memory and desire leads where you might expect. Everyone in sight has something to be sorry for, from Miles (who finds himself questioned about a former worker being tracked by a couple of federal agents) to Sofia to Adele, who also comes equipped with a teenaged son, also named Abner (Luke Robertson), who is, for unknown reasons, hanging out with a “gang” and getting into “gang” trouble.
Even as this plot turn leads awkwardly to Manual’s redemption, the more unfortunate device is Miles as yet another means to the white guy’s understanding of himself, his ghost, and his own ghostness. As righteous as he appears in his lectures to the club kids (who scrape their shoes and look at their fingers while he’s talking, itching to be on their way), Miles has his own troubling memory, to which the movie doesn’t explore so much as lay out as another “reflection” for Manual to ponder. Freeman’s performance here is admirably restrained (Solomon says Freeman described the character as “an old bluesman,” and he has a sort of loose-boned grace). But what with his miraculous phone call, uncanny wisdom, and convenient exit by film’s end, Miles looks too much like a Magical Negro, a memory that definitely doesn’t need to be recovered.