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Worth another watch: THE EDGE is brisk, thrilling, and layered

Looking for a tight, brisk adventure movie with some moral heft? We re-watched The Edge (1997, screenplay by David Mamet), and it was even better than I remembered. I can’t think why it’s not better known.

Anthony Hopkins plays Charlie Morse, a quiet, aging billionaire with a freakish knack for collecting theoretical knowledge. He and his supermodel wife (Elle Macpherson) are visiting the wilds of Alaska for a photo shoot. He loves her, but abruptly realizes that she’s carrying on with her photographer, the dissipated and cynical Bob (Alec Baldwin). Just as abruptly, he realizes that Bob plans to kill him for his wife and money — and Bob knows that he knows. As Charlie says in another context, “I seem to retain all these facts, but putting them to any useful purpose is another matter.”

As soon as this information comes to light, their tiny airplane crashes in the even wilder wilderness, and they are thrust together as enemies who need each other to survive. And then, a bear turns up, and it really wants to eat them. All of this happens within the first few minutes of the movie, and I haven’t given away any plot twists yet.

But I will be, starting now! Even if you know what’s going to happen, it’s a tense, thrilling, satisfying show. This trailer gives it a pretty fair shake:

Here’s what I saw:

Bob is thoroughly useless out of his element (he says that normally, his adventures consist of things like [lisping], “Oh, that cab driver was so rude!”). Baldwin as Bob brilliantly mixes a witty, virile, and nakedly carnal nature with little flashes of rage, resentment, and misery, revealing a gifted man who has squandered his life by giving into every one of his desires.

All Bob knows is what he wants out of people, and all Charlie knows is what people want out of him (even the grizzled outdoorsman wants to pitch a real estate development project to him). They are both lost, long before the plane crashes.

As Charlie says, “Just because you’re lost doesn’t mean your compass is broken.” But what kind of compass will they use to guide them? They are steered wrong by the almost irritatingly clever makeshift compass that Charlie fashions from a paper clip early on, before the men’s relationship is clear; but the second compass, made from the hand of the watch (a gift from the faithless wife), does work, and it shows them the way. In the form of the watch hand, the deceit of Bob and the wife becomes a guide. The wife is sort of an inverted Penelope: it’s her faithlessness (personified in Bob) that gives Charlie drive and direction, keeps him going, and brings both men home, one way or the other.

Also note that the wife’s gift to her lover is a watch that tells dual time, openly signifying duplicity and a refusal to commit. The inscription “For all the nights” tells us where Bob chooses to dwell: in the dark. Like the bear in the deadfall, his own weight and power works against him.

The movie keeps telling us that people in the wilderness “die from shame,” and this idea is the key to Bob’s salvation. The first time he almost dies, in the deadfall, he is still unchanged. He now has some regard for Charlie, but none for himself. At this point, despite being so near to death, he still thinks it’s all about getting the money and the girl, and he imagines his life is lost simply because he hasn’t won those things.

It’s not until the very end, when salvation is actually in sight (in the form of the helicopter) that he tells Charlie he’s sorry for what he’s done. He dies of shame — but it is shame, appropriate shame, that saves him. Without it, his life would have ended in the self-imposed deadfall of greed and ego; but shame brought him to repentance, which saves his soul, if not his bodily life.

The script is peppered with lines that make perfect sense as natural conversation and which also turn out to have some existential weight. When Bob shouts, “You would have died out there without me!” it’s just his ego lashing out — but it’s also true; and it’s true when Charlie tells the reporters, “They died saving my life.” It took two of them to kill the bear; but more broadly, it took two of them to save each other from their meaningless, directionless lives.

Great acting, great casting (but for a hilarious essay on the background of how this movie was put together, read this piece in Vanity Fair from producer Art Linson), swoon-worthy setting. Viewer caution: there is some cursing and a few scenes with blood and gore. None of it is gratuitous, but it’s pretty intense, sometimes terrifying. My 11-year-old son got the adventure part; my 13-year-old son also caught on to the battle of souls.

I hope I haven’t beaten to death these themes of being lost and being found, having direction and having a reason to live. The great part of this deft, brisk movie is that you can totally ignore all of the above, and just watch it because it’s tense and exciting and has a really scary bear in it. Recommended!

***
A version of this review was  originally published in the National Catholic Register in 2015.

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