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Crime, isolation, and redemption

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The customary patterns in contemporary independent filmmaking involve a constellation of familiar elements, forming an inspiring saga that regularly enlivens the goosed-up press releases that pass for entertainment journalism. The stories follow a familiar model of aspiration and struggle, detailing the adventures of impoverished film school graduates with grand dreams. They beg loans from affluent parents and generous friends, mortgage their possessions and max out their credit cards to purchase film stock, rent equipment, hire unknown actors (along with the ubiquitous Steve Buscemi) and technicians, and eventually triumph over the immense difficulties of low-budget production and post-production. After the completion of their work, the exhausted filmmakers trek to the usual festivals to impress potential distributors, and, if they are lucky, they subsequently find friendly venues in the art houses, attract positive reviews, large audiences, and financial support for their next venture into cinema.

            As the new picture Levity (likely to hit Rochester screens early this summer) demonstrates, the facts sometimes deviate drastically from the legend. Despite its grimly low-budget look, its offbeat story, and its totally non-Hollywood manner, the movie employs the talents of a number of highly successful members of the mainstream American film community (actually a common practice in the indie racket). It stars such established names as Billy Bob Thornton, Morgan Freeman, and Holly Hunter, along with the younger, but well known, Kirsten Dunst. Although it represents the directorial debut, as they say, of Ed Solomon, he's an experienced Hollywood screenwriter, with Men In Black, the Bill and Ted flicks, and a great many other film and television credits chalked up on his fuselage.

            The movie itself, however, conforms --- in almost every detail of style and content --- to what audiences have come to expect from independent film. Its simple story of the completely undramatic redemption of an entirely unheroic man, told through some flat voiceover, deliberate dialogue, and a grimly literal visual narrative, contrasts starkly with the usual Hollywood slickness, glamour, and melodrama. Its open-ended, essentially downbeat conclusion expresses the ambiguity and incompleteness of its characters' lives, the drabness of its world, and the faint possibility of hope.

            Thornton plays Manual Jordan, a convict released from prison after serving 22 years for shooting a young convenience store clerk in a botched robbery. Haunted by his guilt, fixated on the life he ended, Manual returns to the neighborhood of the crime, searching for some barely articulated sense of redemption. Through a curious combination of chance and circumstance, he finds himself in a position to make some sort of amends to the survivors of the youth he killed, and perhaps achieve some peace of mind for himself.

            Although the murky naturalism of the atmosphere, the steadfast flatness of the performances, and Manual's affectless manner mesh precisely with his rejection of any faith in God, a subdued sense of the supernatural pervades the movie. When he answers a ringing pay telephone in an empty parking lot, as if fated, he finds himself accepting a job from the man at the other end of the line, Miles Evans (Freeman), a preacher who runs a soup kitchen and mission. That job leads to Manual's encounter with two women: Sofia (Dunst), who systematically sickens herself with drink and drugs at the club across the street from the mission; and Adele Easley (Hunter), the sister of the teenager Manual killed so many years ago.

            The small movie's slight plot establishes a kind of chain of good works, as the stolid, passive Manual, following the offhand, cryptic directions of Evans, tries to save Sofia from herself and instruct a bunch of troubled teenagers in the lessons he learned from imprisonment. He also wants to find some way to confess to Adele and receive at least a measure of forgiveness. In an odd, almost inexplicable way, he simultaneously both fails and succeeds at those endeavors, but also creates some slight degree of difference in the lives of those he touches.

            Like Robert De Niro in the early stages of his career, Billy Bob Thornton manages the difficult task of projecting an entirely different personality into almost every role he undertakes. His passivity, his consistent flatness of tone and absence of surface emotion, his deliberate diction, and his slow reaction to the speech of others match the extraordinary consistency of his performance in his breakthrough movie, Sling Blade. In Levity, he wanders, a lonely man in empty streets, a passive, troubled dweller in squalid rooms, searching vaguely for some elusive answer to an unasked question, listening for some unspoken word, trying to discover what he and the movie would never actually name --- something that might be called "salvation."

Levity, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter, Kirsten Dunst, Geoffrey Wigdor, Luke Robertson, Manuel Aranguiz, Dorian Harewood, Catherine Colvey; written and directed by Ed Solomon. Local release TBA.

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