Beginning with ethereal images of doors and hallways and quickly cutting to the bars of a prison cell, Levity is a film that immediately finds itself mired in such gravity and sense of greater purpose that inertia ultimately results. Written and directed by Ed Solomon (who scripted the Bill & Ted films, Men in Black, and Charlie's Angels), Levity also comes with such a high acting pedigree (it stars Billy Bob Thornton, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter, and Kirsten Dunst) that one could reasonably expect at very least a more engaging film. Although technically faultless – it also boasts excellent cinematography by veteran Roger Deakins and seamless editing by Pietro Scalia – and undoubtedly well intentioned, Levity ultimately collapses under its own self-imposed weight. How it manages to hover just above the tricky straits of self parody only hints at what I suspect Solomon was laudably attempting to accomplish.
Thornton plays Manual Jordan (hint), a man guilty of a brutal murder two decades ago, and who has no desire to leave the penitentiary. Manual believes that he is not worthy or re-entry into society, but the parole board has other plans, and soon he is on uneasy feet in his old stomping ground. In these opening sequences, Levity assumes a measured, otherworldly tone that is effective and compelling; a palpable sense of dread and regret (Manual sees visions of the victim named Abner and carries around a photo of him) soaks the proceedings, and Thornton's forlorn expression helps set a subdued, somber tone. Standing outside the convenience store where the murder took place, Manual answers a ringing public telephone and then meets its caller, Miles Evans (Morgan Freeman, with a raspy tone), an ersatz preacher who runs a community shelter. (Whether described as "fate" or plot contrivance, this sort of happenstance soon becomes Levity's mode of operation.) Evans immediately puts Manual to work at the center's parking lot, which offers a safe haven to suburban ravers' cars as they party across the street at a club, so long as they listen to his proselytize for fifteen minutes.
After reluctantly deciding to stay on at the community center (everything he seems to do - or not do - is tinged with reluctance and significance), Manual undertakes an uneasy relationship with Miles. He expresses his desire to make amends for his past acts, but also accepts its futility since - according to his template - one must finally set it right with God. Since Manual does not believe per se, he aspires to a more modest, self-fulfilling redemption. Miles, no stranger to a hard life himself, blithely suggests that what happened in the past is just that, and that redemption should be based upon present actions and not scrutinizing what has already transpired. Thoroughly eviscerated by his deeds and unable to easily move forward (note the overcoat), Manual wanders the streets, tracking his victim's sister (Adele, played by Holly Hunter). With his long gray hair and still posture, he appears as nothing less than a shell of a human being.
As Levity continues forward at a deliberately stately pace, Manual begins to become involved with the boys the center caters to, a lonely, emotionally deprived young woman (Kirsten Dunst, working in a different tone than the rest of the cast), the specter of Abner, and Adele, who does not know that he is her brother's killer. This particular conceit is the most difficult to weather, and another concerning her son - complete with his uncle's namesake - requires a leap that the film simply cannot sustain. Hunter brings her usual intelligence and emotive facial expressions to the role, but the relationship with Manual feels arbitrary. Not only is Thornton's Manual practically somnolent in demeanor, he is also bereft of any discernable charm. Moreover, Dunst's party girl, though sorely in need of spiritual assistance, would more than likely not find sanctuary in either Manual as presented or the rough boys of the center. The actors almost make it work (Thornton and Hunter have a few effective scenes), but suspension is nearly impossible given the few fanciful contrivances added to the otherwise oppressive weight of the picture.
Levity works well enough on an atmospheric level, although that too becomes a bit redundant. It was rumored not long ago that Thornton was interested in re-making Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (I cannot recall if that was ever confirmed or just mere speculation), and given the moody, deliberate, and spiritually-tinged thematics being employed in Levity, his attraction to the project – if the above is to be believed – is easily understandable. However, behind Bresson's minimalism was a rigor and a compassion that pierced the (ostensibly) undynamic surfaces of his films; Solomon may be similarly concerned (and inclined), but he appears unable to root below the facile – though lovely – exteriors of the characters and their settings. Levity attempts nobility and quiet grace, but is only able to approximate it at best; when viewed with a less forgiving set of eyes, it makes a well-intentioned mockery of it as well.
Video: Presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ration of 1.85:1, Levity's expert cinematography by Roger Deakins is given a very good treatment, though some edge enhancement appears sporadically and some slight grain is also apparent in the beginning. Its color palette is subdued, as are flesh tones, but Deakins' colors and partial lighting schemes are striking when employed. Black levels are solid and detail is good throughout. Very well done.
Audio: Included are DD 5.1 English and French mixes. Levity utilizes a sparse sound design that does not challenge the surrounds. The film's score, by Mark Oliver Everett of the Eels, is moody and evocative (in the commentary Solomon notes that Everett used an untuned piano he bought at a fair), and dialogue remains easy to hear throughout. Overall, a very subdued treatment and appropriate to the film.
English and French subtitles are also included.
Extras: Also on board is a featurette (15:02), which includes interviews with the main actors and writer / director Ed Solomon. Although all parties involved express their admiration for the script and the film's themes, Solomon's humility, humor, and apparent good nature really shine through. I only wish that some of the deadpan, dry humor he employs here (and in his other scripts) could have made its way a bit more into the film. I suspect a little more humor would have gone a very long way.
Also on board is a full length commentary track with Solomon, editor Pietro Scalia, and producer Adam Merims. This is a very relaxed, patient track, in which the three nicely balance the technical and thematic aspects of the film. Solomon worked for decades developing the project, and his thoughtfulness (as well as Scalia's, who was brought in after all principal photography was completed) and dedication to the project are readily apparent - perhaps too apparent. Solomon also notes that he had to mortgage his home as a bridge before funding was completed, and jokes that all those who opined that Levity was "not a commercial film" were right.
Also included are the film's trailer, and the trailers for Man Without a Past and Laurel Canyon.
Final Thoughts: Admirable in concept and only partially so in execution, Levity evokes the deadened spirit of Thornton's character so well (but not the struggle) that its attempts at registering on a higher plane are regrettably rendered moot. It is a noble failure, but an interesting one, and as such it is recommended as a rental to fans of the actors involved.