Cinema Signal:

Concurrent Sentences :
A True Story of Murder, Love and Redemption

. "Levity"

When an act of murder becomes the basis for a man's conscience, it makes for a disturbed, obsessive drive to find a way to compensate for it. Finding that way is what this heavy character study is about. Presumably, removing the fixation will provide the levity, the lift, the ability to unshackle the mind from its burden.

In Billy Bob Thornton's portrayal of Manual Jordan, a just paroled convict from a maximum security prison, his characterization is likely to be compared to that of his morose and forbidding barber in "The Man Who Wasn't There." Truly, his many recent film roles are challenging him to delineate one from the other and there is building a too great familiarity with what he does, although he provides himself a certain experimental space with makeup and alteration in his look.

Here, his Manual Jordan, a convict who has been haunted by a photo of his young victim for 19 years, is granted a sudden parole and literally dumped on the streets . He chooses to return to the city of the crime (a grey section of Montreal serves as the unspecified model) and the surviving family of his victim.

This turns out to be his victim's sister, Adele Easley (Holly Hunter) who is living a sad life with an out-of-control teenage son. After staking out her apartment, Manual follows Adele on a shopping journey. Surely he's not going to confront her looking like a forlorn, destitute street person with moppy long-hair, and an overcoat? Surely he stands no chance of his appearance doing anything but causing this petite, attractive woman to find some way to escape his proximity. But his offer of helping her with her heavy bags of food is merely a first impression on his campaign to warrant some connection to her and to her life. The subsequent developments hue to the script in Manual's mind rather than to the dictates of what might pass as a woman's rational behavior in such a situation.

Along his way to self-rehabilitation, he's hired by Miles Evans (Morgan Freeman), a preacher who runs a barely sustainable inner-city community center located across the street from a night club. Evans provides the club patrons free parking in the center's lot provided that they sustain at least a portion of his nightly sermons.

This job, with its proximity to the club, brings Manual in contact with Sofia Mellinger (Kirsten Dunst), a street-wise spoiled beauty who lives in the better part of town while she pursues her reckless self-abuse with drugs and alcohol. When she learns that Manual brought her home in a taxi after she passed out in the club one morning, the bond between them grows strong enough for her to weather his accusative scorn for ways in which she is wasting her life.

When ex-convict Mackie Whitaker (Dorian Harewood) recognizes Manual and offers him a job in a planned robbery caper, Manual turns him down, accepting the scorn of an habitual criminal, expressing that he harbors no taste for the criminal life. And when Adele's son Abner (Geoffrey Wigdor) is shot and then goes out to pay his assailant back with a bullet, Manual sees his own destiny in the boy's plans. Helping Adele to deal with the seriousness of the proposed lethal confrontation, he tries a man-to-man talk with the boy, having no effect until he finds the boy with an actual gun and his target in hand.

Thornton's command of the screen carries us along a spotty trail of attempted redemption, as weighty a journey as the theme itself. The seeking of absolution bears no levity; it's a most serious undertaking. The film's injection of youthful energy and female attractiveness provides some lift to the proceedings, which is replete with arbitrary developments masquerading as surprises (Morgan Freeman's preacher is not exactly who he pretends to be). But, there is also a certain calm grace in writer-director Ed Solomon's deliberately agonized pace and, with a stellar cast, stretching of the thematic possibilities.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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