Forgotten/Ignored Gems: “The Edge” Edition

In a recent, hugely popular CFS post (∼30 views, 0 comments…and counting!), you might recall that I recycled the well-worn assertion that prose has a distinct advantage over film in how the medium can “get inside people’s heads, which allows for an interior complexity that movies simply can’t hope to match.”

What I failed to disclaim is that, if we’re talking about certain genres — specifically man-versus-nature — then the opposite is true. Let’s be real here; in terms of demonstrating nature’s sheer magnitude and indifference to us puny, self-absorbed humans, nothing can touch a properly projected widescreen image with a thunderous accompaniment of sound.

Feel free to disagree, but I don’t give a fiddler’s fart how brilliantly Hemingway describes Santiago’s battle with the marlin and, later, the sharks, in his novella The Old Man and the Sea because, ultimately, it pales in terms of visceral impact to, say, a hypothermic Leonardo DiCaprio gutting a dead horse, stripping naked and crawling inside to survive the night in The Revenant. Or Robert Redford struggling to navigate his damaged sailboat through a violent tropical storm in All Is Lost. Or even Matt Damon trying to survive an explosive decompression of his artificial habitat on the surface of Mars in The Martian.

Needless to say, I’m a sucker for this particular genre, especially when the writer/director ups the ante by introducing a ferocious wild animal to the mix. I guess it appeals to the gleeful sadist in me — what could be more pleasurable than watching our protagonist(s) deal not only with harsh elements and unmanageable topography, but also some critters looking to rip his/her/their face(s) off?

As for which genus gets my adrenaline pumping, I’m partial to Canis, as in the grey wolves marauding through 2010’s The Grey. Or Panthera, like the man-eating tigers of Tsavo in 1996’s The Ghost and the Darkness. (Bonus infonugget: they currently reside in stuffed form at Chicago’s Field Museum!)

But if I truly had my druthers, a murderous Ursus is the way to go. Why? Because, frankly, grizzlies scare the shit out of me. Which is silly because I live in Chicago, a place where the wildlife is so benign the greatest dangers to life and limb are squirrels with mange and, possibly, zebra mussels. That said, I did have a run-in with a brown bear while back-country hiking in Glacier National Park with Mrs. Conflicted Film Snob. Seriously. Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture of the encounter:

Wait…that’s a still from the 1988 film The Bear. Silly me.

Here’s the actual photographic evidence (taken with a circa-1996 one-touch camera, remember those?) that the CFS went mano-a-mano with an honest-to-God grizzly:

See that imposing brown blob in the distance, the thing with the red circle around it? That’s her lumbering away not long after we gave her what-for by yelling “Hey bear!” and jingling our bear bells, which are the size of grapes and about as threatening. So I guess our grizzly encounter was the good kind. Which brings me, at long last, to the subject of this post, a film that involves the bad kind, 1997’s The Edge.

Synopsis

Not to be confused with the lead guitarist of U2, The Edge, written by the great David Mamet and directed by New Zealander Lee Tamahori, begins with a particularly citified group arriving in Alaska for a photoshoot. Among the attendees are fashion photographer Robert “Bob” Green (Alec Baldwin), his assistant Stephen (Harold Perrineau), the beautiful model Mickey (Elle Macpherson) and, tagging along for the ride (which he provided in his private jet), Mickey’s much older billionaire husband Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins). On the eve of the shoot, which is taking place at a remote lodge accessible only by float plane…

…Charles is given a surprise birthday party at which he demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure facts. (“You know, you can season meat with gunpowder.”) He also reveals, with that singularly chilly Anthony Hopkins’ gaze, a creeping suspicion that his wife is smitten with the much younger Bob. The next day, Bob, looking for inspiration, suggests they track down a local Indian they’ve heard about to add some flavor to the shoot. Bob and Stephen, with Charles in tow, head out in the float plane to bring the man back to the lodge. While passing over a mountain range, the plane is struck by migrating birds and crashes into a lake. The pilot dies, while Bob, Charles and Stephen barely make it to shore.

Faced with meager supplies (the clothes on their backs, a couple matches, a couple flares and Charles’ pocket knife, a birthday gift from Bob) and little chance of rescue, Charles rallies the troops in a particularly Mametian way:

CHARLES

You know, I once read an interesting book which said
that most people lost in the wilds, they, they die of shame.

STEPHEN

What?

CHARLES

Yeah, see, they die of shame. “What did I do wrong? How
could I have gotten myself into this?” And so they sit there
and they…die. Because they didn’t do the one thing that
would save their lives.

BOB

And what is that, Charles?

CHARLES

Thinking.

Soon Charles does just that, fashioning the second hand from a pocket watch, a leaf and a puddle of water into a compass. Now oriented, he suggests they start walking towards someplace more likely to be the focus of a search effort. Before too long, though, the cold, tired men run into a brown bear not at all disinterested in human flesh.

They escape by the skin of their teeth, but later that night the bear returns, killing Stephen.

To reveal much more would ruin the pleasures of the film. Suffice to say, Charles and Bob are left to contend with the elements, hunger, hopelessness, a growing suspicion of each other and, of course, that great big man-eating bear.

Thoughts

The making of The Edge — at least its early stages — was fraught with headaches. In addition to being a tough sell with the studio (two guys and a bear…WTF?) and difficulty finding two leading men who could carry such a story (Hoffman passed, DeNiro passed, etc.), it seems that Baldwin showed up on set with a Grizzly Adams beard, something totally wrong for his suave character. (Rumor had it he was self conscious about his weight.) As is usually the case, it fell to the long-suffering producer, Art Linson, to insist the beard get shaved. This didn’t go over well with Baldwin, who Linson said responded thusly: “MOTHERFUCKING movie PRODUCER. I knew this was coming, the bullshit Hollywood mentality telling ME . . . MOTHERFUCKER!” Such is the vanity of famous actors. (For those interested, the entire production of the film is covered in great, entertaining detail in an article Linson wrote for Vanity Fair, which was excerpted from his book, What Just Happened?: Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line.)

Between the film’s somewhat absurd concept and its troubled early production, one could be forgiven for thinking it ended up a disaster. On the contrary, it’s a fine film, well acted by Hopkins and Baldwin (and the late, great Bart the bear) and staged with assurance by Tamahori, who wasn’t far removed from his debut triumph, the 1994 New Zealand Māori drama Once Were Warriors.

Also doing impressive work are famed composer Jerry Goldsmith and the aptly named cinematographer Donald McAlpine, the two sonically and visually presenting the breathtaking Alaskan wilderness (actually, Alberta) in all its glory.

That said, it’s Mamet’s script that lifts the film above silliness. What he’s done is taken a simple conceit (man v. wild) and turned it into an existential crisis for Hopkins’ Charles, who, in the midst of battling to survive, notes that he doesn’t think he can ever return to his previous life. Same goes for Baldwin’s Bob, who, in extremis, comes to grips with the fact that he’s a shallow prick and basically wasted his life. (“I never did a goddamn thing!”) The experience — both the good and the bad — has left them changed men. Their priorities, their assumed place in the world — all are shattered by the scope of the predicament and the landscape in which it’s playing out. As Charles observes to Bob at one point: “For all my life, I’ve have wanted to do something that was, um, that was unequivocal.” If they’re able to survive, the experience will literally have saved each man’s life.

On a less serious note, the script is also full of Mamet flourishes, from stinging one-liners (“Never feel sorry for a man who owns a plane.”) to macho guy talk (“What one man can do, another can do. Say it!”), to his trademark love of the f-bomb, the latter two which can be relished in the following scene, one I was remiss not to include in my recent post on thespians swearing:

Oh, and speaking of things left out of previous posts, I absolutely should’ve included The Edge‘s final scene in my post on Great Endings. I’ve included it here, but note there are spoilers:

And, finally, here’s the trailer:

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