REVIEW: Don't Jump! Though The Ledge May Make You Want To
Getting a movie's setup right is one thing. But following through on an intriguing premise is the hard part, and that's where Matthew Chapman's The Ledge, a thriller that wrangles with intricate ideas about faith and religious extremism, goes splat.
Charlie Hunnam is Gavin, an apparently freewheeling guy who works as a hotel manager in Baton Rouge. Gavin is intrigued when a shy but curiously self-possessed young woman named Shana (Liv Tyler) comes to him for a job. Shana also happens to live a few doors down from the apartment Gavin shares with his roommate (Chris Gorham), and she's married to uptight religious freak Joe (Patrick Wilson), who proudly dispenses anti-gay rhetoric and other un-Jesuslike jibber-jabber.
Gavin doesn't care much for Joe, but Shana's sweetness and forthright demeanor attract him immediately. But let's not get ahead of ourselves: When we first meet Gavin, he's creeping out toward the ledge of a very tall building, fully intending to leap. Hollis (Terrence Howard), a cop trained in dissuading potential jumpers, has been called out to the scene. Unfortunately, Hollis has problems of his own. And in the first of the movie's many outrageous implausibilities, he gets a call on his phone from his wife and -- get this -- excuses himself from talking Gavin off that ledge while he decides whether or not to answer.
Hollis is lucky Gavin doesn't do a pavement-dive then and there -- but if he did, you wouldn't have a movie. And Chapman wouldn't have the chance to expound on religious fanaticism and other assorted quests for spiritual meaning in life. Is The Ledge a thriller laced with heady ideas or a faux-philosophical tract with a few little tassels of suspense tied on? Chapman -- who has previously written screenplays (What's the Worst That Could Happen?) and directed several features (like the 1988 Heart of Midnight) -- probably intends the former, but what we actually get is closer to the latter.
He and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski do a fine enough job of setting the stage for this battle of wills between a believer in overdrive and an atheist who protests a bit too much: Behind the opening credits, we're treated to an eerie David Lynch-like shot of city rooftops dotted with church steeples and smoking smokestacks, as if the battle for one man's soul were taking place right at skyline level. But the characters' dialogue is both less dramatic and less subtle than that opening shot. The skirmishes between believer Joe and doubter Gavin play out like Sunday school exercises. "What did God do to you to make you so angry at him?" Joe asks Gavin, adding a missionary's cheerful crocodile smile, but only as an afterthought. Gavin feints and parries, but his heart doesn't seem to be fully in it, and later, when we find out the cause of his personal spiritual torture, we hear the whole sorry puzzle lock together with a loud "click."
Yet for stretches of The Ledge, the actors make the material seem much more interesting than it is. Hunnam is a scruffy charmer who's nonetheless able to let bits of his soul shine through, and Tyler, now in her mid-30s, still has that breathy, luminous, innocent quality about her -- somehow, her girlishness doesn't seem like a put-on. Howard, a terrific, underappreciated actor, doesn't have as many scenes as he should, but he's surprisingly subtle in his handling of the rather outlandish crisis Chapman invents for his character. And although Wilson is the dullest of actors, proficient and workmanlike in the worst way, he's well-cast here: Wilson's aura of reptilian eyebrowlessness suits the smiley-but-wily artificiality of Joe's character, and his face has the kind of dewy glow that God might bestow upon his chosen few, at least if He were Max Factor.
But the actors' efforts don't pay off. The melodramatic flourish that ends The Ledge feels unearned and unclean: It's the sort of ending that ought to hit hard, and yet it comes off as perversely inconsequential. There can be no clear winners in this battle between believers and skeptics, but Chapman sends the audience home empty-handed too.