The Edge of Darkness comes with the recommendation of a clever director (in that he made the powerfully unconventional Casino Royale and knew to keep away from the dull mess that was Quantum of Solace) and a great lead. It delivers, being one of the greatest action films in a long time. Let’s start at the beginning…the title. The title is multi-layered, primarily referring to Mel Gibson tottering on the verge of evil but also Ray Winstone’s encroaching demise (granted it’s lazy character motivation but he’s great in the role) and a company facing ruin. This, I recognize, may appeal only to my pretentious side but the film has a lot more going for it in terms of being a straight genre movie.
The shock and violence of the death of his daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) is a real surprise when it happens. While not surprising in the sense that you didn’t know it was going to happen (you did), it does surprise because you didn’t know it was going to happen then. On top of that, it is simply a surprise that Hollywood can still surprise you in its plot machinations even when you see them coming. We are distracted with a rather overwrought sequence concerning the symptoms of radiation poisoning, then…BANG!!! Immediately, you are thrown into the film. Why not?
Mel Gibson’s performance of the grieving father, increasing interest and emotional involvement, carries us through to the next sequence of note. Here, he has a burly fight with a younger man, who turns out to be his daughter’s boyfriend. Not interesting in its own right, but it is forcefully presented, a well-made set piece with a powerful physicality, something director Martin Campbell honed in Casino Royale. You believe it while it’s happening, which is something that cannot be said for a large amount of recent action films.
Next, it’s Mel’s performance behind a gun aimed at the head of Danny Huston, playing the shady head of a company dealing with radioactive waste. All nervous tics but steady eyes, he brilliantly conveys a man torn. It’s clear…he can’t do it…yet. There is a refreshing lack of explanatory dialogue for those with divided attention. We also get another jolting death in a scared informant falling victim to a villainous hit-and-run and an expertly put together and, again, convincingly physical shootout between Mel and the hit-and-run car.
By now, he’s got nothing to lose. Cue a closing shootout that is violent, but powerfully realistic. It’s cathartic in the style of James Ellroy’s bloody resolutions, something you just don’t often get from Hollywood. Mel forcing one hit man to yell “Craven!” and, hence, identifying himself as Emma’s murderer is tough and effective viewing. He then shoots the murderer in the head, not once, but twice. The focus here is not on blood and guts, but on the extreme emotions going through the character, which Mel intriguingly plays on the verge of tears throughout this scene. Danny Huston’s demise is similarly effective, not just in the details (the force-feeding of contaminated milk and the slow death by bullet wound to neck) but in the evocative line, “Deep down, you know you deserve this.” The violence is not exploitative, but is seen through moral eyes. It is clear that, by slipping over the edge of darkness, Mel’s character is aware that both he and his victims are not good men.
Cut to the next scene and we come to the part of the film that matches the audacity of Lasse Hallström’s My Life As A Dog with it’s nods to terrifying genre conventions but, crucially, unemployed ones. A well written Yes, Minister-style scene hints at a particular horror. We know Winstone is one of the good guys at this point (or at least, has a conscience) and will bring down the nasty politicians but, it can’t be, it will be by secretly tape-recording them. He’s wearing a wire and at the very finish, this great film has adopted one of the laziest of denouements. But, no, director Martin Campbell and co-writers William Monahan (The Departed) and Andrew Bovell (Lantana) are much more clever. It’s another physically raw killing spree. In an earlier and very well written scene Mel Gibson confronts a corrupt senator with a moral plea. Here, at the end, it sees its pay-off with the senator himself shouting “I am a United States senator” followed by Winstone’s killer line, “By what standards” and one of the best post-gunshot wound falls (a bodily flip over the arm of a sofa) ever committed to film.
Ignoring a fey ghostly ending, The Edge of Darkness is a powerfully effective and moral film. The action is convincing (importantly, there is little CGI) and the performances are great. It is a searing thriller and one of the best for a very long time.