Sony Pictures, 100 Minutes
Commentary by Dr. Lee Ramsey
- featuring the stellar cast of Billy Bob Thornton
(Manual Jordan), Morgan Freeman (Miles Evans), Holly
Hunter (Adele Easley), and Kirsten Dunst (Sofia) - has
earned major yawns from the professional movie critics
who can't stand it and sustained applause from those
who highly appraise it. Such ambiguous responses point
to the movie's value for the religious seeker, for the
film plumbs one of faith's most ambiguous themes - the
price of redemption.
After serving twenty-two years in prison for killing a teenager in an armed
robbery, Manual Jordan returns to the unnamed city where he committed the crime.
In the parable-like nature of this film, the city could be anywhere and everywhere.
Believing that he is beyond forgiveness (he does not want to be released from
prison), Manual stumbles into a series of relationships that call into question
his assumptions about sin and redemption. The street-wise preacher, Miles Evans,
who runs a community center for inner-city youth, counsels the conscience-tormented
Manual, "If you want to help yourself, try helping somebody else." This
is exactly what Manual sets out to do by first becoming a kindly protector
of Sofia, a hard-drinking, drug-abusing lost soul. Later he befriends Adele
Easley, the sister of the boy Manual murdered. He attempts to assist her with
the responsibility of raising her teenage son, whose friends and lifestyle
sweep the son to the verge of violent destruction.
Such a cast of down-and-outers move in and out of the shadows of this movie
like ghosts. Manual, the biggest ghost of all, looks in these relationships
for the way to redemption, the way to recover his lost soul and atone for his
crime, even though he doubts such forgiveness is really possible. At one point
Manual approaches outright confession to Adele, who does not know his true
identity as her brother's murderer, when he says to her, "You can help
me." But he withdraws from the moment without making his confession.
Does Manual really want to help Adele, or Sofia, or are these relationships
forged solely upon his own need for redemption? Can Adele actually offer forgiveness
to Manual, once she discovers his identity, or must Manual look elsewhere -
to God, to grace - for the redemption that he craves? At the climax of the
film, Manual risks his own life to save Adele's son when attacked by gang members.
Does such self-giving earn redemption for Manual, or is he attempting to repay
a debt that is beyond his own ability to do so? After all, absolutely nothing
will bring back the life of the one that he killed.
Such faith-filled, yet ambiguous questions drive this movie on long after leaving
the theater. They give the seeker plenty to ponder, even the title of the movie
itself. Is such a serious movie grossly misnamed ("Where's the levity," one
critic asks?), or is Manual on the verge of receiving the lightheartedness
that he desires? God is rarely invoked in the film, even less the gift of grace.
The silence speaks. For all of Manual's torment begs him to look outside of
himself, through and beyond the checkered relationships of his world to something
or some-One who is more.
Maybe, in the end, Manual Jordan will discover his place by the river of redemption
that his last name invokes. Then again, maybe he won't. Either way, this movie
begs its viewers to stumble along with Manual towards that place where we can
finally hear, as in the words of the Gospel of Luke, "Raise up your heads,
because your redemption is drawing near."
Copyright ©2003 Dr. Lee Ramsey