Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Edge of Exasperation: David Mamet's The Edge starring Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins (1997)

[Here's another time capsule review from 12 years ago.]

I may be the wrong type of guy to write a review of The Edge. The writer of the movie, David Mamet, evidently believes you're not really a man until you have to use your wits to survive in the cold Alaskan wilderness. You have to build fires to keep drying off your damp clothes. You have to go for days without food and then maybe gnaw on half of a squirrel you catch in a little ingenious stick trap shaped like a box. If that isn't enough, you're not really a man until you kill a 500 lb grizzly bear by wedging a spear in a rock so the upraised howling, drooling bear impales itself on its own weight and falls on top of you.

The last film that followed this trial-by-torment ethic was G. I. Jane, which at least was trashily entertaining. The Edge takes its old fashioned Hemingwayesque Grizzly Adams/Jack London/Deliverance survival shtick seriously, which eventually makes it a dreary bore. Anthony Hopkins plays Charles, a billionaire genius who flies out to the frozen tundra with his much younger wife, Elle Macpherson, who supermodels faux Native American clothes for handsome fashion photographer Bob (Alec Baldwin), who is sleeping with her on the sly.

Out at the bear lodge, Charles quickly establishes himself as an overcivilized scaredy-cat when Bob frightens him with the head of a bear rug. I think we are meant to think of Alec Baldwin as a frivolous superficial photographer modern man, but he looks too strong and resourceful for the part. He decides he wants to hire a local bear-hunting Indian for a fashion shoot and so they fly north into a flock of birds that causes the plane to crash into the water, and away they go on their adventure.

For awhile Bob and Charles have another character played by Harold Perrineau walking along with them, but he proves to be early bear meat after he accidentally cuts his leg and attracts the bear with the smell of his blood. Compared to the shark in Jaws or the big snake in Anaconda, this grizzly looks kind of cute. I kept thinking the real circus or zoo-kept bear probably enjoyed his occasional jaunts out in the woods in front of a camera. We also get to see a computer animated bear and a man-in-a-bear-suit bear for the fancier stunts. This grizzly means business because he has a special preference for humans, and so he tracks Bob and Charles for half of the film. He has his own special bear music for his appearances, some sort of wonking trombone sound to go with the loud epic orchestral music.

Did I mention the breathtaking natural scenery? The many feats of courage, strength, and stamina? Charles knows that Bob wants to kill him to get his money and his supermodel wife, which adds a nice little plot wrinkle. Is Bob saving Charles' life just so he can kill him later? (Spoiler alert) After they kill the bear, they both wear bear pelt coats, hats, and bear claw necklaces so they really look like two Grizzly Adamses. We see their actions and faces take on a soulful dignity born of true manlihood.

Maybe Boy Scouts, hunters, and men suffering midlife crises might like and learn from this movie, but I didn't. I guess I'm not man enough.


Univarn said...

Harold Perrineau... the film's "black guy"... dies first. I think right then and there the words GENERIC JUMBO should have shot out onto the screen. I liked it when I first saw, but back then I was 10ish and anything that was violent instantly became my favorite movie. I saw it against a few years back and just didn't care, all the plot points are there to scream excitement, but I barely muscled up a "oh, that would have hurt" hollower than the film's characters. Nice review!

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Univarn. Perrineau's character's fate sounds similar to that of Scatman Crothers' in The Shining. I went to see The Edge in hopes of something on par with the excellent House of Games, but so much self-conscious masculinity in one movie struck me as forced and a tad neurotic. After awhile, I felt more sympathy for the bear.

Drew said...

Nice writeup and great blog! I pretty much mirror your thoughts on this film, I've always considered it to be a pretty trivial moment in Mamet's distinguished body of work. It had the opportunity to be perhaps a thoughtful meditation on survival and will, but gets so caught up in its, as you so adequately put it, "self-conscious masculinity" that it pretty much forgoes most of its potential for the genre trappings of your typical action picture. Still holding my breath for Mamet's next masterpiece, it's been far too long since The Spanish Prisoner.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fun movie to revisit. I find parts of the movie ridiculous, but overall it's an enjoyable adventure (your criticisms still applying), mainly because Anthony Hopkins is so entertaining in it. Yes, it's about macho strength, but more than that it's about surviving because of intelligence, which is an idea that most action movies never explore.

I'd say more, but I'm sure Hokahey will be along in a while, because he LOVES this movie. So let me set him up: Hokahey ... what are we going to do about that bear?

Hokahey said...

"Kill the motherfucker!"

I just love it when George says, "Today, I'm gonna kill the motherfucker!" How can you NOT like a movie in which Anthony Hopkins delivers this line? This was one of my favorites of 1997 - and in my little awards for the year I gave Hopkins Best Actor.

I'm partial to outdoor adventure/survival films. The Naked Prey is one of my favorite films. And this film really delivers for me.

Yes, it's about being macho - but how else are you gonna kill a bear? But it's also about a man whose reading gives him confidence and helps him survive. I admire a film that is significantly about reading. George reads - so he knows how to make fire out of ice.

Man, I identify with that! With all the post-apocalyptic survival novels I've read, I'm definitely surviving if 2012 comes true.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Drew. I agree that it has been too long since The Spanish Prisoner. Perhaps my great respect for House of Games and Glengarry Glenn Ross fueled my disappointment in The Edge.

Thanks, Jason. Hokahey, can we respectfully disagree on this one? I imagine that I could survive in the wild just fine if I can still have Wifi access and Netflix. I've never heard of The Naked Prey. Thanks for recommending it.

Hokahey said...

FilmDr - We can definitely disagree. I can see some of the criticisms of the film that have been noted above. But when it comes to a great Anthony Hopkins performance, stunning Alaska locations, outdoor survival, and a big bear, I can forgive a lot.

Jane said...

Film Dr., you tragically misdiagnosed this patient! The Edge is about Charles's realising he does not fit in with most because he has Character. "Lesser" men see ONLY what they covet from him and laugh at his humanity; he is Lonely, and claims no superiority. He COULD be 'ANYman', none of those things saves him, his character does! The 'Edge' is that of human morality. When Man vs. Nature, we're all equal. Steve, "Bear Meat" sees it, Charles can't save him, he's only a man, but a truly good one! He tells Charles, and proves to him there are men who could appreciate him. He talks to keep them from panicking, he acts to save them. Sometimes he's wrong, but what the heck else are they going to do? He gives Steve the spear task and keeps egging on Bob to SAVE THEM by giving them something to focus on! He is thinking of the others as much as himself. Bob represents man's basest urges and crosses THE EDGE of human morality by turning to murder, for greed - once he's used him to stay alive. So look past that bear! This film is about the human condition. I love this movie, because it IS rare to find a truly good person, remember Diogenes the Cynic?