Levity (2003)

2003-04-18 (Limited release)

Memory is a tricky business. So are movies that mess with it. In Levity, Manual Jordan (Billy Bob 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 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 by way of introducing himself. “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 (Holly 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. Ordinarily, no way. But in a movie, such creepy coincidence tends to work out.

Manual’s lack of social skills is understandable, of course, given that he’s been locked away all this time. Fortunately, he looks slightly less shabby than he might have, as he has a place to stay and a job, which come to him completely by chance (or 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). 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 stands up to the basketball kids, recognizing that their woo-wooing isn’t so threatening as they seem to think it is. White girl impresses the boys, who start inviting her to hang out and play pool down at the center.

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, eh sees that she’s not just a self-squandering child, but a lost soul, sad and aching, a reflection, in her snotty, privileged 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 question about a former worker being tracked by a couple of federal agents, one played by Dorian Harewood, who needs more time on screen) 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” violence. This bit of business is sketchy and stereotypical, an unimaginative shortcut to predictable crisis. And while this crisis might look like a means to Manual’s redemption, it really just exposes the skimpy script.

Even more unfortunately, Levity uses Miles as yet another means to the white guy’s self-understanding. 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. Following his gonzo alien-shooter in Dreamcatcher, Freeman’s performance here is admirably restrained. But what with his miraculous phone call, uncanny wisdom, and convenient exit by film’s end, Miles looks a lot like a Magical Negro — definitely not a memory that needs to be dredged up again.