Review of the Film The Edge
Review of The Edge
Screenplay by David Mamet. Dir. Lee Tamahori
Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin, Elle McPherson
"We are all tested...” says billionaire Charles Morse near the end of Lee Tamahori’s outdoor action thriller The Edge. Throughout the film, based on David Mamet’s original screenplay Bookworm, “testing” serves as a unifying motif, much as “waiting” does in American Buffalo, or “closing” in Glengarry Glenn Ross. Morse, played by the venerable Sir Anthony Hopkins, must confront challenges as visceral as an early-winter Alaskan wilderness and a man-eating Kodiak bear. These physical confrontations, however, provide the foundation for his ultimate testing: can he remain faithful to his new-found integrity and confidence in the face of betrayal? While the film’s outdoor setting may seem unfamiliar territory to those not acquainted with the author’s novel The Village or his personal recollections on deer hunting in Make-Believe Town, the moral atmosphere in which Charles must navigate places The Edge firmly within the Mamet canon.
Tamahori opens the film with the sounds of a blizzard over a grainy white screen which clarifies into the opening shot of Charles disembarking from his twenty-million-dollar jet. Accompanying him are his much-younger supermodel wife, Mickey (Elle McPherson), fashion photographer Robert Green (Alec Baldwin), and their retinue of assistants. Charles clearly stands out from the rest of the group: while Green and the others gather around Mickey and begin snapping pictures, Charles engages in small talk with a mechanic. As they board an amphibious plane, Charles begins to peruse his book Lost in the Wilds, a birthday gift from an employee, while the others joke about Green’s new dual time-zone watch. By the time they reach their destination, a remote and primitive lodge, the viewer can almost predict Charles’ move to the lodge-owner’s bookshelves as Green, Mickey, and the others discuss plans for the next day’s fashion shoot.
While these opening scenes provide necessary exposition, Tamahori also carefully establishes an antagonism between the bookish Charles and the brash Robert. Hopkins’ rendering of his character should remind one of the obedient butler from The Remains of the Day: despite his wealth and prestige, Charles is timid, self-effacing, and clearly uncomfortable among the others. When Mickey with a subtle undercurrent of mockery informs lodge-owner John Styles (L.Q. Jones) that her husband “knows everything,” Charles responds to the other man’s incredulousness with a nervous “I didn’t claim it. I don’t claim anything.” Baldwin’s Green, on the other hand, exudes confidence and cockiness: when his male model falls ill, Green quickly orders preparations to find and retrieve a Native American “neighbor” of Styles’s, who lives eighty miles away and has no idea of Green’s plans for him. When Tamahori and Mamet show Green and Mickey flirting, in each instance the camera quickly shifts to Charles, his expression a combination of anger and helplessness.
The two men make an uneasy truce when, along with Green’s assistant Stephen (Harold Perrineau) they find themselves stranded in the wilderness; the impromptu quest for a substitute “authentic” model results in a freakish, albeit foreshadowed, plane crash. Now stripped of the benefits of financial and social position, the men must rely on their wits for survival. Charles, claiming that “thinking” will make the difference between success and “dying from shame,” attempts to take command of the situation. Green, relying not on an accurate assessment of the situation but a belief that Charles’ “importance” will bring immediate assistance, resists the older man’s authority. The bear’s killing Stephen and a missed rescue opportunity convince the photographer that salvation is by no means assured. Green’s acceptance of Charles’ authority yields a mentor-student relationship, one of Mamet’s most common and evocative motifs.
During the trek to safety, Mamet’s screenplay takes an unconventional turn. Rather than relying on unpredictable plot twists to maintain suspense, Mamet and Tamahori include the audience in this game of converting knowledge from the theoretical to the practical. Thus, Styles provides Charles (and the audience) with both the “theoretical” means of handling an encounter with a bear and the fact that a Kodiak that has eaten a person becomes “a man-eater for life.” Suspense develops from this knowledge: will Charles remember? Charles does remember Styles’s advice, along with facts such as how to make a compass out of a needle and a leaf garnered from Lost in the Wilds. From his successes in negotiating the terrain, calming Green, and even killing the bear, Charles develops from the timid outsider to a confident “thinking” man of action.
The change in the film’s protagonist and the prolonged battle with an angry Kodiak would provide climax enough for most action pictures, but Mamet and Tamahori have one more level of “testing” in store for Charles. After finding an abandoned cabin equipped with both a smattering of supplies and a canoe which can carry the men to safety, Charles makes another discovery: a receipt, inexplicably stuffed in the box for his new knife, shows that Mickey had bought Green’s new dual time-zone watch, and inscribed it with “To Bob from Mickey. For all the nights.” With his suspicions confirmed, Charles confronts the younger man, who turns on his mentor and takes him outside to shoot him with a gun salvaged from the cabin. Despite the desperate situation, Charles again chooses to “think” rather than “die from shame”: he reasons with Green just enough to back him into a conveniently-placed bear pit. Again with the upper hand, Charles makes a choice that truly meets his expressed desire to “do something unequivocal”: he helps Robert out of the trap and attempts to nurse him to the point where they can make the journey home.
Here, poetic justice prevails, and Green, after apologizing to Charles and assuring him that Mickey had no part in a plot to kill her husband, dies just as a helicopter spots the two men. Upon his return to Styles’s lodge, Charles faces his final test: confronting his wife. Tamahori’s portrayal of their meeting leaves some ambiguity about the status of their relationship: Charles hugs Mickey, and then presents her with Green’s watch. Hopkin’s facial expression this time conveys condemnation mixed with the love for his wife he had expressed to Green as the younger man pointed a rifle at him. At the same time, Mamet’s script leaves little doubt as to Charles’ perception of his wilderness experience: when asked by a reporter how Green and Stephen died, he replies “They died saving my life.” Charles’ closing recognition represents one of the most persistent of Mamet’s themes: despite Green’s betrayal, the community formed by the men, with its absence of social pretense, served as a source for the billionaire’s emerging strength and self-recognition.
While The Edge at times relies on traditional action-film hokiness to cover gaps in the story or keep its audience on The Edge of its seat, Tamahori and Mamet keep most of their aesthetically pleasing focus on their unconventional hero. If one wants the non-stop motion and simplistic morality of Stallone or Van Damme, this film will be a disappointment. If one doesn’t mind having to think about complex questions of trust, betrayal, and friendship while enjoying the spectacle of a fight with a bear, The Edge provides a rare treat.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas