- compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2003 1 Jan
Ed Solomon's directorial debut—
Solomon is a moviemaker with a lot on his mind, including forgiveness, faith, friendship, and the way we run from self-realization and dodge the consequences for our sins. These themes needed richer soil than his previous scripts for
At 42, Solomon has at last found a home for these ideas. "I see a lot of my friends [in the entertainment industry] say, 'I've worked hard enough, so I'm going to cash in and do what comes easier,'" Solomon says. "I feel the opposite. I'm getting older, and in order to keep growing, I'm going to push myself."
The seeds for
An ex-con named Manual Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton) returns to society still haunted by his crimes. Staring out at the world like a friendly ghost, furrowed brow framed by long silver hair, he experiments with covert acts of kindness. His first subjects are the sister of the man he murdered, Adele (Holly Hunter), and her son. But things get complicated. A ringing telephone plunges him into the mysterious "ministry" of an agitated preacher called Miles Evans (Morgan Freeman).
Evans hires Manual to help him reach stubborn street youth. There, Manual develops a reluctant, fatherly affection for a beautiful wreck named Sofia (
It's hard to believe this stuff is from the same pen that inked the scripts for the
Cinematographer Roger Deakins (
While the film focuses heavily on questions of the soul, Solomon sidesteps overtly religious dialogue. Manual's meditations on redemption entertain only those options that are humanly possible. He insists that he does not "deserve forgiveness." The possibility that forgiveness might be offered freely never occurs to him. So he wanders heavy-hearted from encounter to encounter, refusing to call upon the God he keeps talking about.
I asked Solomon, who is remarkably softspoken and humble, about the biblical quality of his hero's name. "I called him 'Manual' because of what he is capable of—Manual means 'by hand.' I didn't mean to use 'Emanuel' to give it any kind of religious connotation." He paused and smiled. "But then again … I did call him Manual
His instinctive storytelling might reveal more "religious" truth than he intends. His characters seem ignorant of God's grace, even as they extend it to each other. Manual seems resolved to saving himself "by hand," but there's a hole at the center of his life that the gospel would fill perfectly.
Most mainstream movies make me eager to part company with their shallow, ill-mannered characters and cheap answers. Solomon prefers to leave us with important lingering questions. Just as he sometimes wonders what happened to that incarcerated teen, we are left wondering where his metropolitan pilgrims' progress will lead them. Do they have any inklings of real hope? Have they learned lessons that will quench their longing for relief, levity, and joy? These questions suggest that the movie's work is not over after the credits roll. That's when we have the opportunity to turn to our fellow moviegoers and really get to the heart of things.
"I'm not coming at this from a Christian perspective, although there are parallels for sure," the storyteller says cautiously. "I'm not coming to this film from a place of knowledge. I was trying to really explore questions."
Whatever Solomon's intentions were, the film's heavy spiritual subtext has not gone unnoticed. "Some members of the secular press have just attacked me for trying to make a Christian film. Initially, I got mad. I asked, 'How do you get that from this story?' And then I was kind of amused. Everyone has a right to read in what they want. But then I started thinking about it and I said, 'Well, what's wrong with that anyway? What if I was? Why not?'"
Alex Field (Relevant) calls
Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "The viewer is not unsettled by the film's turmoil, but ultimately uplifted by the story's hopeful conclusion. Although rated R for its emotional intensity and the obscenity sprinkled throughout, none of the content is of an exploitive nature. Everything said and done further develops the characters … as they go down the road to redemption." He sees "a great deal of symbolism and imagery, which suggests Christ's atonement (even if not intended by the filmmaker). I found
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) has some argument with the actors' performances, but he is intrigued by the plot. While "Solomon's film … doesn't answer the questions it raises, it does provide plenty of conversation starters. What is redemption and how does it work? Are there sins that cannot be forgiven? What is genuine remorse and how does it fit into the big picture? Is incarceration intended to be a punishment or an opportunity to rehabilitate? Where is God in all this?"
Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) finds aspects of the film off-putting. "One can read a spiritual dimension into this meditative film despite its apparently secular characters. Indeed, its redemptive theme is overemphasized. It is rare that a film addresses the aftermath of violence and its lifelong effects as this one does without any sugar-coating. However, its grim presentation and not-truly-fleshed-out characters will try viewer patience, and those looking for its spiritual side may be put off by the preponderance of four-letter words."
Mainstream critics disagree on whether the film is profound or merely pretentious. You can scan through their reviews here.
For more on the interesting story behind the film, check out the story at The Los Angeles Times. Robert W. Welkos illuminates how funding was raised for
Film Forum covered Ed Solomon's
This week, more religious press critics discovered this movie of bold questions and compelling spiritual quests.
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "
David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) says the film "explores remorse, repentance, and redemption. The message in the film, at least for me, was: In order to achieve
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) echoes the praise of other religious press critics for Ed Solomon's sobering drama
And Steve Lansingh (The Film Forum) writes, "