Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Edge of Darkness

Easily the best movie at the multiplex right now, Martin Campbell’s remake of his own 1985 British mini-series Edge of Darkness goes down smooth but gives you a bit of cork to gnaw on along the way. Why is this being dumped in the late-winter next to The Wolfman and Valentine’s Day? In his first major vehicle since Signs in 2002, Gibson seems bent on revenge not only for the murder of his character’s daughter but for whatever it was that killed his career. That he spends most of the film hunched over in a dank trench coat that might as well be made of shame is only one layer of the joke. As Michael Ian Black would say, Mel Gibson must have terrible PR.

Gibson plays Boston Police Detective Tommy Craven, whose grown daughter Emma is gunned down on his front porch. What begins as a formulaic revenge thriller quickly spirals outward into a massive political paranoia yarn full of corporate sleaze, government cover-ups and crooked cops. But it never devolves into cat-and-mouse hijinks; rather, the bad guys are clearly delineated from the good by the end of the first act and the rest of the film is just one understated moment of quiet after the next where Gibson and his Shakespearean ensemble try to figure out what the point of it all is.

Examining a crime scene that may or may not involve his Emma’s killer, a fellow cop offers that Craven is acting pretty calm for a guy in his position. He replies, “It doesn’t do me any good not to be.” Later, threatening a lawyer only tangentially related to the conspirators, Craven warns the suit to do what he says or risk upsetting a man with nothing to lose.

Already aged to the point where flipping a table and pinning a crony takes his wind out for the whole five minutes of the resulting interrogation, Craven really doesn’t have anything to live for except to dig as deep as he can into the mysteries of his daughter’s death. What makes the character work is his slow realization that solving his daughter’s murder is nothing compared to what it might’ve been to know her in life; there’s a hauntedness to Craven’s memories of her. Throughout the film, some ethereal or psychological part of Emma speaks to her father in short, monosyllabic sentences. These half-hearted attempts on the part of Craven’s broken psyche to keep her alive are juxtaposed with sporadic flashbacks – all of which take place when she was an adorable little girl. There are a couple holes here (Emma’s mother and adolescence, namely), and their void stings.

The key to the film is Ray Wintsone’s Jedburgh, a high-ranking spook who lives in DC, has a thick British accent and tends to pop out of nowhere with a gun, a cigar or a glass of warm booze (or all three). Jedburgh is the other ghost haunting Craven. He’s a man of barely-defined profession who is clearly sent to kill our hero but instead sets him on the path to uncover the big fish. Jedburgh’s reversal (coming early in the film, again, so it can marinate) may be little more than a mid-life crisis of conscious from a middle-aged career hitman, but it’s also the film’s thematic foundation.

Jack Bennett, Danny Houston’s ur-sleazy private-sector weapons-developing CEO, also pauses to ask Craven about the loss of his daughter. Bennett, the bad guy, has spent his life creating something made to kill people he doesn’t know. Jedburgh has spent his life killing people for money. They can see in Craven’s eyes that all he ever did was create a little girl and that they took her away. In a movie obsessed with mortality, here are three men with nothing substantial to live for. Talk about darkness. Is there an essential goodness to Craven that Jedburgh sees through to? As a homicide detective, are the two men some kind of photo-negative image of each other? It requires some unpacking.

Purportedly an action movie, Edge of Darkness features exactly one car wreck, zero explosions and several scenes where guns get aimed and not fired. The tightness of the script impressed me: it’s a rare movie with no extraneous scenes or characters that lets drama occur between men in a room. The story moves with their choices. Not only is it a Michael Clayton-esque political thriller tuned to our modern dilemmas (and not only did it predict a Republican Massachusetts Senator), it has the courage to play a game out between its characters rather than extrapolate a lot of nonsense about globo-terrorism. It may be about a government conspiracy, but that’s all anybody needs to know. What counts is what it means to a father.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!


  1. I liked this, but it's no "Michael Clayton." As political thriller, I found it pretty ludicrous - and I think the fed played by Denis O'Hare (fantastic) would agree with me. But as character study, of father and daughter, it was great.

    I liked that the mother's absence was never addressed... until she was actually mentioned, toward the end, during the (otherwise terrific) shaving scene. Bringing her up raises all kinds of questions that we, as viewers, were previously content to let slide, thinking that her unexplained absence only adds to the poignancy of the father's loss.

    I'd also like to point out that, while there was very little 'action' by action-movie standards, I did find the violence unusually gruesome. When was the last time you actually saw *brains* on screen, and it wasn't camp? And we're all pretty used to seeing people shot and killed in movies, but it's much more unusual for the camera to linger long enough to watch anyone actually die.

    Finally, why oh why would they set this in Northampton, Massachusetts? To anyone who knows the place, there couldn't be a more preposterous location for all that takes place. Why not just make up a fictitious MA town? And the repeated joke about "everything's illegal in Massachusetts" fell flat to someone who knows how liberal they are in the things that really matter. This isn't a major criticism, but it could have been so easily avoided. Just took me out of the movie, is all.

  2. "Everything's illegal in Massachusetts" ... except for gay marriage, universal health care, abortions and every other hot button social issue that divides America. Fair point, but I just thought it was a really funny ironic joke.

    I wonder if all the characters are Republicans. This is something I'm going to watch for on a second viewing.

    I think the film functions as a response to the MICHAEL CLAYTONs of the past few years (for the record, I love that movie). We're all so caught up in political intrigue, we forget about the families of all the victims of the collateral damage they spawn. The character of Michael Clayton is the same as Jedburgh, here. Same story, different angle.

    Regarding the violence, I'll just say nothing makes violence more gruesome than horrifying spurts of it within a quiet drama.

    And regarding the mother: I'll admit that I'd forgotten he does mention her there. But I'm willing to say his mention of her in that context doesn't necessarily mean she's still in the picture or even alive, given all we know about the character.

  3. Also: if you *were* going to start a terrorist cell or something of that ilk, why *not* do so under the radar in a place like Northampton? I probably just got myself flagged by saying that.

  4. Oh please, Todd. You were already flagged.

    This all sounds very like State of Play, although that may just be the adapted from a miniseries part of things. Political intrigue, too, though, and something small that seems personal but is ultimately revealed to be much bigger than anyone thought.

  5. Oh - that's a good comparison, with the revealing of a similarly unlikely political scandal. I did like this one better, though.

  6. Another thing STATE OF PLAY has in common with EDGE OF DARKNESS is that both films' stories feel somewhat *rushed*; they each boil six hours down to two or two-and-a-half.

    And in both cases, I kind of dug this. There's an almost-unnatural momentum to each and every scene that really keeps them moving. You don't see it a lot. But I understand if this turns some people off, as has been the case.