Sundance Review: Charlie Hunnam and Liv Tyler in 'The Ledge'
Spiritual thriller strands a strong cast
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PARK CITY - Well, they can't all be winners.
For three days and nine movies, I'd been on a pretty good streak at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The closest I came to actually disliking a movie was "Silent House" and even that one deserves at least a little consideration for the technical ballsiness of its single-take approach to what would otherwise be a dud of a "Gotcha!" thriller.
I suppose that Matthew Chapman's "The Ledge" also deserves a modicum of consideration for attempting to make a thriller that's actually about spirituality. But how much should I admire this attempted fusion of disparate elements when "The Ledger" proves to be such a dismal thriller and just a banal meditation on faith?
Yeah, "The Ledge" is the first complete dud I've sat through at this year's Festival. Despite a fairly star-studded cast, "The Ledge" was never likely to find much more than a niche audience and I'm guessing that it would probably end up offending that target niche.
More on "The Ledge," or as I started retitling it, "Just Jump Already," after the break...
"The Ledge" begins, as the title would suggest, with a young man (Charlie Hunnam) standing on a ledge, seemingly headed for suicide.
Wait. Strike that.
"The Ledge" actually begins with a cop (Terrence Howard) discovering that he's shooting blanks, in the sperm department.
But leaving aside the strange fertility clinic opening, "The Ledge" really picks up with Gavin standing on a ledge and with Hollis attempting to talk him down. It doesn't take long for Hollis to realize that Gavin's rash decision isn't entirely voluntary. So what is Gavin doing on the ledge? What will happen if he doesn't jump by noon? And what does any of this have to do with Hollis' sperm?
Well, to understand some of that, the movie requires a flashback, though I'm not exactly sure how far we're flashing back.
In any case, Gavin has a nice apartment that he shares with his gay buddy (Christopher Gorham), played by Christopher Gorham. He works as the assistant manager at an upscale hotel and even though he has to wear a suit and even though he's apparently a public face of the hotel, nobody stops to tell him that he looks like he belongs in a California biker gang and that it wouldn't hurt him to wash his hair occasionally and shave.
One day, Gavin runs into attractive neighbor Shauna (Liv Tyler) on the bus and then he runs into her again when she applies for a job at the hotel. Is it a coincidence? Is it fate? Is it destiny? Whatever it is, it's inconvenient, because Shauna is married to Joe (Patrick Wilson) and the two of them are really, really Christian. How Christian are they? They're "Oh, we don't drink" Christian. How Christian are they? They're "Apparently we decorate our apartment with large, strategically placed crosses" Christian. How Christian are they? They're "Let's pray that our gay neighbors change their ways to avoid Hellfire and damnation" Christian.
But Gavin isn't actually gay. We know this because he's really into Shauna, modest attire and all. He may not be gay, but Gavin's something worse: He's an atheist. And if the neighbors are unexpectedly extreme in their Christianity, Gavin is unexpectedly extreme in his atheism. And when things like that clash, a potentially interesting movie grinds to a halt so that Gavin and Joe can have "philosophical conversations," which amount to each of them reciting a few talking points that somebody must have cribbed from the "How Do I Talk to an Atheist" blog.
Best know for his screenplays for "Color of Night" and "What's the Worst that Could Happen," Chapm so wrapped up in Gavin comparing God to the Easter Bunny and Joe saying that because God has given us all free will, anybody who isn't born again is going to hell, that it sometimes appears that he's forgotten that the movie is called "The Ledge" and that the ledge was formerly a literal thing. It's OK that he's forgotten about the ledge, because nothing's actually happening there. Gavin's narrating his story and Hollis is being the worst detective in the world, worrying far more about his lackadaisical swimmers (and what they say about his marriage) than about figuring out if there's anything he can do to either keep Gavin from jumping or to eliminate the external catalyst for the ledge thing.
While "The Ledge" has ambition, it fails on all executional levels. It's almost impossible to imagine a circumstance in which one man attempting to prevent another man from committing suicide could generate less tension. Gavin's just standing with his back against a shed talking. He looks down every once in a while, but we've already been told he isn't killing himself until noon and other than the occasional cutaway to a clock, nobody thought to amplify that timetable, thus the stakes never change the entire movie. And with Hollis fairly distracted by his own issues, there's nobody on-screen who particularly cares what Gavin does.
A bigger problem is that nobody watching is going to care either. Try as Humman might to make Gavin into a rascally God-hating rogue, the character is insufferable, other than looking like Charlie Hunnam -- a fine attribute that would probably make my own life easier in some ways. Gavin spends most of his time picking fights and insulting people's beliefs and although Joe is spewing a lot of hate, you get the feeling Gavin would be just as obnoxious to a casual Easter/Christmas Christian. He certainly mocks his roommate's interest in Kabbalah sufficiently. By the time Chapman gets around to exposing Gavin's backstory, which includes several details that probably should have been better integrated into the character, it's too late. I can understand why Hunnam would have jumped at the chance to be a leading man, but isn't a role that does him any favors.
In contrast, Wilson commits fully to the earnestness of a character who Chapman, cinematographer and many viewers are prepared to just treat as a villain. Joe is lit and framed like the Devil himself at times, but Wilson somehow makes him seem like a real person. In conversations between Joe and Gavin, the fundamentalist is supposed to seem like the wacky one and Gavin is repeatedly described as "rational," but Wilson is a good enough actor to destroy what ought to be the film's balance. I wouldn't say I ever found myself "rooting" for Joe, though it's a closer fight than it ought to be.
[The question of where the film stands on the religious questions is a big one. To say it mocks or belittles organized religion, while supporting the healing powers of faith or spirituality might sound facile, but I don't think it goes any deeper than that.]
Whether you end up being Team Joe, Team Gavin or Team Jump Already, a bigger problem is that Tyler's character is no particular prize. Yes, she looks like Liv Tyler, which means that she should end up with characters who look like Patrick Wilson or Charlie Hunnam, but she's been given such a Psych 101 assortment of Daddy/God issues that other than her Liv Tyler-ish-ness, there's nothing to recommend her, though Chapman tries to emphasize that point with a couple poorly choreographed sex scenes and some nudity. Tyler doesn't help matters by speaking in the same high-pitched whisper for the entire film, without any variation in tone or cadence.
I couldn't quite tell you what Terrence Howard is even doing here. Yes, the role gives him the chance to get randomly weepy and shout-y at times, but this is Terrence Howard we're talking about. He could get randomly weepy and shout-y doing voice-over on a Pixar movie ["Toy Story 4" could feature Howard as a somewhat disturbed, hyper-emotional Go-Bot.].
Nobody is helped by the sloppy technical aspects of "The Ledge." Chapman directs with no sense of spatial awareness, which drains any sense of threat from the rooftop scenes. Even more perplexing is his lack of awareness of what to do with light, which leaves a couple conversations completely blown out (one scene had me convinced the director and DP were suggesting that Gorham's character is an angel, which clearly wasn't intentional) and several more nearly in the dark. It's a visual scheme that might be interesting if light was connected in some way with spiritual enlightenment or something pretentious like that, but mostly it seems to relate to whether or not somebody brought a fill-light to set that day. Similarly, I'd wonder if a few strange choices in the sound design were meant as audio clues to some unwritten mystery except that the dialogue is often poorly recorded as well.
As the ending of "The Ledge" grew ever-closer, I wondered what questions Chapman thought he was making the audience ask. Will Gavin jump? Who cares? Will Hollis find out what's making Gavin jump? It's not exactly a twist or a surprise and a cop less preoccupied by sperm could have saved the day in 30 minutes. Is the Man Without Faith going to suddenly find Faith? Maybe, but you'll notice that no season of "24" ever put a ticking clock on Jack Bauer finding God. And is there any way that the film can come to any conclusion, spiritually speaking, that won't make the first 90 minutes feeling like an inane bait-and-switch? Alas, no there is not.
Other Fien Print reviews from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival: