Manual Jordan (mmmm-hmmmm Billy Bob Thornton) has been released from prison after serving around two decades for shooting a clerk in a robbery. He stumbles into some custodial work for a potty-mouthed reverend named Miles (Morgan Freeman) and finds himself suddenly charged with the responsibility of running a small youth center for the neighborhood hooligans. Along these lines, he tries to keep an unruly young drunk (Kirsten Dunst) from throwing her life away. But his real mission is finding forgiveness. His whole life he's been overcome with guilt for his crime and now he has a chance to make amends (must not be Texas). He finds his victim's sister Adele (Holly Hunter) and she's immediately drawn to his being quiet and ugly (I guess). She has problems of her own, with a hooligan son hell-bent on getting himself shot. Ultimately, he must make himself known to her and hope for the best.
The characters are three-dimensional and the premise is appealing. Manual hopes he's doing the right thing for Adele, but deep down he knows he's doing it for himself, hence the trap we all fall in when looking for redemption. Thornton doesn't do anything we haven't seen him do a million times, but his patience (or slowness) works well for the character. Morgan Freeman's character is fun, but he's using some weird voice the whole time. Still, his confidence as an actor always satisfies. Holly Hunter is very good, as expected, and it would have been nice to see more of her in this. But the real star of the show is the screenwriter, Ed Solomon, who seems to be working something out in his head that's moderately thought-provoking.
However, as the director, Solomon is so enamored by his story and its characters, he doesn't realize how much the film drags. It's no help that Manual doesn't speak much, but the real problem is trying to tie all these characters together to build any kind of tension. Some of the events that take place may not be entirely predictable, but we rarely feel a need to question what's going to happen next. There are quite a few films like this and they're generally decent - the kind of film that happens to the audience. It's presented to you, instead of you feeling like you're part of it somehow. But the film's appealing simplicity is also its major defect in this case.
Certain elements of the film don't work. We see Manual's victim follow him around sometimes, but it's more of a schtick than something profoundly effective. Geoffrey Wigdor is dreadful as the troubled son and his life-or-death plight is not particularly convincing. Similarly, although her performance is sound, it's a little hard to buy how easily Kirsten Dunst's character can be turned around (or even if the character is necessary in the first place). And it's awfully distracting that Billy Bob Thronton's last memorable role was playing a man involved with a woman whose loved-one he killed (Monster's Ball).
Still, as a whole, the film gets its point across and ends with what I thought was a very dignified conclusion. You can never presume to really know anyone, just do your best to see where they're coming from.
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