"You spend much time in the woods?" the old lodge master (L.Q. Jones) asks Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins), the billionaire whose party is staying at his lodge. "No," Charles replies. "I'm afraid most of my knowledge is theoretical." He'll be able to say different by the end of the film. Lee Tamahori's The Edge is the story of how Charles is put to a real test of survival--not just against the harsh elements of the outdoors, but the darkness of his fellow man. For the film's writer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker David Mamet, it can now be seen through a different prism: as an intriguing piece of creative autobiography.
Morse is staying at the remote lodge with his trophy wife Mickey (Elle Macpherson), a model who is doing a photo shoot there. The older man's suspicions are somewhat aroused by her close relationship with her photographer, Bob (Alec Baldwin); he thinks the dashing young photog may have designs on his bride. Already feeling pressure to prove his manhood and daring, he decides to accompany Bob and the photographer's assistant Stephen (Harold Perrineau) on a quick errand in their leased puddle-jumper. But a freak bird strike crashes the plane, leaving the three city men to brave the elements--and giving Charles a chance to put his book smarts to the test.
When Mamet wrote The Edge, he was at a bit of a crossroads; his directorial efforts to date had mostly been intimate, character-driven affairs, with a greater emphasis on his famous fast-paced dialogue and sleight-of-hand plotting than on anything as commercial as action filmmaking. But, as evidenced in his books on film, he was clearly drawn to the "pure cinema" element of the action film, and the opportunities it provided for the kind of complex male characters he specialized in. But was there room in the action cinema for a brainy guy like Mamet? Did action/adventure screenplays, which typically consisted of variations on "We've got company" and "We gotta get outta here!", have any use for a wordsmith of Mamet's skill?
In a way, Charles Morse may be one of the more autobiographical characters of the Mamet canon, though the terse writer may not be a billionaire, or married to a model (that said, his wife Rebecca Pidgeon ain't chopped liver). But Morse's journey into the unforgiving woods, armed only with his fierce intellect, is not unlike Mamet's tentative attempts, in the decade or so that followed The Edge, at more conventional action filmmaking--first writing for other directors (for Tamahori here, for John Frankenheimer in Ronin, for Ridley Scott in Hannibal), then for his own directorial efforts (Heist, Spartan, and Redbelt).
The script for The Edge is marvelously constructed; Mamet's got a terrific sense of conversational exposition, and (as the fan of magicians and con men is wont to do) he lays the whole movie out in the opening scenes without ever tipping his hand, without ever dipping into the shallow, easy exposition of a lesser screenwriter. Once the men are lost in the woods, he wisely stays with them; since there are no scenes of the worried wife or the frustrated search party, we're just as lost as the three protagonists are, just as clueless as to how desperate their situation really is. The dialogue in is unmistakably Mamet--from the quotable epigrams ("Never feel sorry for a man that owns a plane", "That's the spirit that beat the Japanese", "I'm not dense, I just have no imagination") to the inspired repetition ("Did you know that you can make fire from ice?" "Fire from ice, can you think how?") to the tough-guy rhythms. But it's also not so purely stylized as to alienate either his detractors or those who don't know the writer from Adam, but are just looking for a good-time movie.
In too many of his recent films, Anthony Hopkins has done such transparent paycheck work that he might as well appear on screen with a price tag hanging off of his head. But his performance here, is an unaffected man of the world, is quietly sensational; it's a full, robust character arc, from the opening scenes, wandering through the background, thumbing through books and being agreeable (there's something wonderful about the way he says "Yeah," and I can't even begin to explain why), through the middle sections, trying to think and reason his way out of the situation, and into the climax, in which we see a fire in his ice-blue eyes as he stares down the Kodiak bear that is stalking them. At the time the film was made, Baldwin was beginning his slow transition from leading man to supporting character actor, having shown his capacity for the latter with his unforgettable ten-minute role in the film version of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. His work here is similarly seductive; it's fun to listen to his matter-of-fact growl-purr, and how he curles it around Mamet's dialogue.
Tamahori's direction is elegant yet unobtrusive, workmanlike without showing off. His shots rarely call attention to themselves, and when they do, it's earned--as in the slow pull back after their big fight with the bear. In fact, those bear scenes are where he really shows his stuff as an action director; the first big chase, as the bear pushes them across a high-flung tree over the rushing rapids, has got the Saturday morning serial intensity of an Indiana Jones movie. When the bear comes back, drawn by the smell of blood, it's scary, shocking stuff, and their final confrontation with the beast really gets your heart going. (Much credit is due, and given in an awkward end title, to Bart the Bear and his trainers--the bear is right up on them, right there with them in that frame.) In those scenes, Mamet and Tamhori are seizing on the true thrilling potential of the action/adventure movie--that when we actually know and care about characters, the stakes are raised, and that (when properly done) a character's actions in a heightened situation tell us more about them than any dialogue can.
Charles and Bob's transition to tough, bearded hunters may be a little too clean, and there's a chance that, in placing the bear battle where it does and pulling the ending out a wee bit too long, the film peaks too early--the human drama is certainly compelling, but it can't hold a candle to Hopkins taunting the bear with cries of "Come and get me!" and liberal use of Mamet's favorite 12-letter word. Still, The Edge is an awfully good yarn, and an accurate bellwether of interesting things to come for its esteemed writer.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Not to overdose on the hyperbole, but Fox's adroit MPEG-2 transfer makes the 13-year old movie look brand spanking new. An outdoorsy movie through and through, the picturesque photography is startlingly good, from the leafy greens of the trees to the bleakness of the falling snow. Color reproduction is impressive, as is the clarity and detail (as well as the depth and dimensionality) of the dense, rich woods. The CG effects in the plane crash sequence are a little dodgy--that's about the only place where the image is less than stellar, and that's more the fault of the original materials than this first-rate transfer.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD is just as solid, with a terrific spread of music, dialogue, and environmental effects. The foley work in the plane crash is immediate, immersive, and scary; same goes for the terrifying bear attacks (and the sequence in which the bear "toys" with them by growling throughout the soundstage). Since most of the film takes place outdoors, surround channels are constantly engaged with nature effects, and separation is outstanding--particularly in the rumbling thunderstorm scenes, or the big set piece of the roaring rapids. Dialogue is nice and clean, never overwhelmed by the busy effects track or Jerry Goldsmith's brassy, bossy score.
The disc also includes French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes, as well as English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Korean subtitles.
When The Edge was originally released on DVD back in 2002, it was a bare-bones edition; sadly, the situation hasn't been remedied for the film's Blu-ray debut. All we get in the way of bonus features is the film's original Theatrical Trailer (2:27), and a few other trailers for Fox titles on Blu. I know it's been a while since the film's release, but you mean to tell me there wasn't an old EPK lying around somewhere?
The Edge wasn't a huge hit upon its initial release, and has been somewhat forgotten in the years since. That's a shame--it's a crackerjack thriller, a good old-fashioned man-against-nature tale that's just a little bit smarter and a little bit savvier than you might expect.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.