Saturday, July 21, 2012

One Step Beyond: Matthew Chapman's The Ledge

The image of a man standing on the edge of building, contemplating taking his life, is one that has appeared repeatedly in film and TV shows over the decades (including the recent Season Two finale of the terrific BBC series, Sherlock). Most of these stories, with suicidal characters driven by personal or financial despair, almost always feature a cop or social worker trying to talk the person down. But what if the individual is not on that ledge of their own accord, but pressured to be there by a third party? What if they are told that they must jump by 12 noon – or someone else will die in their stead? Would you jump to save that person, or would self-interest kick in? Such is the premise of Matthew Chapman's intriguing 2011 movie The Ledge (not to be confused with Asger Leth's 2012 Man on a Ledge).

This is one of those films I picked up for $1 this past spring when my local Rogers' video store shutdown. (I had watched the trailer at the start of another movie and was intrigued by the premise.) The cast looked promising too, with Terrance Howard as the cop, Hollis Lucetti, trying to talk the guy down; and Liv Tyler as Shana Harris, the object of the jumper's affection. The jumper is Gavin Nichols, played by Charlie Hunnam, a British actor (doing American here – the film takes place in Baton Rouge, Louisiana) unknown to me though he is one of the main stars on FX's Sons of Anarchy. Patrick Wilson (A Gifted Man, Watchmen) as Joe Harris (Shana's cuckolded husband) is the one who made sure Nichols stood on that ledge. But let me rewind the story here (because that is what the picture does). It starts with Nichols stepping out on the ledge and a short time later Lucetti appears to try to talk him out of it. Lucetti has his own issues (he thinks his children are not his) which is established in a short prologue before Nichols takes his ledge stroll. Lucetti is also surprised at how casual Nichols is, not conforming to the usual attitude of the despair-filled would-be jumper. So he intuits that Nichols is not there of his own accord. Nichols soon cops to this, telling Lucetti that he has been told he must jump by noon or someone else dies (it is 10:30AM according to a large clock across the way). He then tells Lucetti his story.

Patrick Wilson and Liv Tyler  in The Ledge
Flashback time. Basically, the Harrises live in an apartment down the hall from his. In one of those coincidences only possible in movies, Shana shows up at his place of work (he's a manager at a local hotel) looking for a job as part of the cleaning staff. He gives her work. The next night, Joe Harris invites Nichols and his roommate (a gay man) over for dinner. They accept, but serious weirdness is quickly revealed. The Harrises are born again Christians and Joe proceeds to tell Nichols and his roommate they can be “cured.” After Nichols clarifies that he's not gay and that he's an atheist, Joe then turns to his roommate offering to help him get “better.” They flee the apartment. Tensions ensue between the neighbours, but Nichols is intrigued by the shy, reserved, beautiful Shana. They begin to talk at work and mildly flirt. She reveals both her and Joe's back stories. She was a drug addict who was entering into the world of prostitution when she met Joe at a church she'd fled into from a bad john. She's beholden to Joe because he saved her life. Joe was a reformed drug addict and a “try anything” sort who had found redemption in Jesus. Nichols and Shana fall in love and begin an affair, an affair that Joe figures out is happening and plots his revenge.

Matthew Chapman' CV as a screenwriter and director is pretty bad. For example, he wrote Color of Night – the film that ruined Richard Rush's (The Stunt Man) career; and Chapman's last film as a director was the terrible 1988 film Heart of Midnight. So the fact he generally made a good, if not great, film here is almost a miracle. His central premise is unique and most of his cast is generally strong, although I figured out Hunnam was British because his accent kept peaking through. Otherwise, he is quite credible in the lead. Howard is really good in his limited role (though his character does one unrealistic thing which I'll discuss in a minute), and Tyler is tremendous as the shy, confused, breathy-voiced woman trying to escape a catastrophic life.

At first, I thought that Wilson was bad as Joe Harris, but as the film moved along, I realized he was subtly revealing his back story through his seemingly one-note venomous anti-gay and anti-atheist diatribes. I saw that Harris himself was probably gay, or bi-sexual, and had convinced himself that, by blindly embracing Jesus, he had “cured” himself, so he sincerely believed he could cure Nichols' gay roommate too. What he failed to see – but we gradually do – is that he had just traded in one group of addictions (drugs and sex) for another (fervent religion). It's an interesting character arc that Wilson slowly reveals through the cracks in his damaged personality.

Charlie Hunnam on The Ledge
The flaws here? Considering that the film is mostly told in flashback, and strictly from Nichols point of view, there are several scenes where the Harrises are alone and discuss certain things Nichols would not be privy to. This could have been simply covered off by having Nichols tell Lucetti that Shana told him what the Harrises talked about later. Another is that the cops are pretty stupid. I kept wondering 'well, since he's gotta jump by noon, Joe Harris has to be watching somewhere in order to see if he does it,' but it's not until the final few minutes that the cops' collective light bulbs come on. The other oddball moment, and I'm not quite convinced it's a flaw, is several times during his attempt to talk Nichols down, Lucetti receives calls from his distraught wife to convince him that he has not been cuckolded (or at least not in the way he thinks). He not only takes these calls, but steps away from his job talking Nichols down to do so. Oh really? Hmm. Wasn't he a bit concerned that while he sneaked away to have a private call with his wife that Nichols wouldn't just up and jump? And yet, I can buy this because Chapman established that Lucetti knows Nichols isn't there by choice, and it's not close to noon when he does this. It's still a bit unbelievable, but I was (just) willing to go with it.

SPOILER alert – Here I reveal the ending, so please stop reading if you don't want the finale spoiled.

What isn't a flaw is the conclusion. The question of course is will he or will he not jump. In the 1970s, when major Hollywood filmmakers still had creative control and some balls, of course he jumped, but in the modern era of big budget film-making, of course he doesn't. But this is an indie picture and the filmmakers can do whatever they want. His decision to jump and his last words he says to Lucetti are completely earned. I remember exactly what I said (and what I did) as Nichols plummeted to the ground. I said, “oh my god,” and then I held my breath. I didn't breathe for a very long time. I was so used to the Hollywood ending that I didn't think Chapman would have the cojones to have him jump. But he does. And the picture is better for it.

 David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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