October 24, 2021

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Why David Mamet’s ‘The Edge’ Trumps Other Action Adventure Films

I was in graduate school when I chanced upon a copy of “The Edge” at my local Blockbuster.

It caught my eye because Anthony Hopkins is one of my favorite actors and while Alec Baldwin is a jerk in real life, he’s something of an actor. I didn’t notice (and this is important after the fact) that it was written by David Mamet. I’m not usually one for buddy films in the wilderness, but like a good adventure, so I took a chance on it.

I watched it after my wife and kids had gone to bed and then, the next day, watched it immediately again after tending to my morning duties, asking in my head, “Why the hell do I like this film so much?”

Then I noticed David Mamet’s name attached as the writer. That surprised me momentarily but then didn’t—I realized that the dialog had totally enthralled me. The “talk” in the film is as important as the action. This was, I realized, a very smart movie.

Some decades later, I would come across a confession by Mamet that confirmed my insights regarding this particular film. In 2008 he published this, voluntarily—“Why I am No Longer a Brain Dead Liberal in the Village Voice.

I’m not the first to notice this.

Obviously, back in the mid 1990s, Mamet had had some thoughts.

But to what makes this film so good. Doubtless, this reading audience is familiar with Liam Neeson’s turn in “The Grey,”  As good as “The Grey” is, and it is good, “The Edge” is better.

Both films traffic in rather complicated intellectual and emotional landscapes—that are masqueraded by the natural landscapes of the actions of their plots. But “The Edge,” directed by Lee Tamahori, more securely connects that physical environment to the emotional and psychological and philosophical (which, this latter, “The Grey” lacks, though it strains admirably for a poetic one) grounds that give meaning to the basic physical adventures depicted.

It is one thing for a man to face a life-and-death situation that asks him to question (privately) every decision he has ever made. It is another for a life-and-death situation to ask a man to question the very basis of reality itself. “The Edge” asks its protagonist, Charles Morse, to do this; “The Grey” asks its protagonist to face the question, but shies from solving that dilemma.

“The Edge” is too smart to be explicit in this regard. But the questions it asks challenge the viewer to wonder about his or her own assumptions about, well, everything.

In movie review mode, I would offer you a non-spoiler description: A suspicious billionaire becomes trapped in the wilderness with the suspected paramour of his super model wife and must discover if he has what it takes to survive with a partner by whom he’s being cuckolded and suspects of trying to kill him—even while he’s being hunted by a man-eating Kodiak Bear.

But there is so much more to the film.

It begins (and pay attention to the musical score, by Jerry Goldsmith, a rich symphonic background that combines the possible heights of human aspiration and the sadness of the tragedies that attend human existence) with a shot of the tail section of a plane.

This segues to an establishing shot that shows a group of people exited a midsize airplane. This leads to a shot of Charles Morse (Hopkins) isolating himself from the others and walking into what is a regional hangar, to have a short conversation with a mechanic.

So—Charles Morse, a billionaire, is established as the “isolato”: the “isolated man.” He is a man apart. Different from others. American audiences can be forgiven for believing that he’s a man isolated by luck.

But Mamet dispels this belief in a brief conversation between Charles and Bob Green (Baldwin) in the airplane before the “crisis” of the film (a foreshadowed “bird-strike” that brings the plane disastrously into a lake in the middle of nowhere and kills the pilot, leaving Charles, Bob, and Stephen (Harold Perrineau) alone in the wilderness trying to figure out how to survive).

Just before this “inciting action,” Bob (who is having an affair with Charles’ wife, “Mickey” (Elle MacPherson), he says, “I admire the way you took that joke last night.” Charles says, “Thank you.” “Tough row to hoe, if you think about it.” “What would that be?” “All that money…Never knowing who your friends are. Never knowing what people value you for…”Yeah…” “Must be tough.” “Never feel sorry for a man who owns a plane.”

“Tough row to hoe” is a slavery expression—it’s an expression of a person who believes that the system is designed to enslave people to their appointed lots. It’s a philosophical belief that human beings are incapable of changing the “arc” of their own destinies.

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Charles’ response is a rebellion against such thinking—he says, “Never feel sorry for a man who owns a plane.” Why? Because the only people who own planes are people who set out to own their own planes. It does not happen by accident.

Here, Charles expresses that any human being in his position is responsible for everything that happens to him. Bob expresses or espouses a philosophy that says that human suffering is meaningless; that humans are subject to forces over which they have no control and must negotiate not a benign universe (never mind a benevolent one) but a malevolent one (Melville’s dilemma, I think) and hopelessly hope for the best.

But as the film plays out, Mamet charts a course. Charles is established as the protagonist and the isolated man (for reasons we do not know). The party (city mouse/country mouse faerie tale) is introduced by the lodge owner (L.Q. Jones, as John Styles) to the differences in life between their experiences and what it’s like in the wilderness.

Charles proves himself, in a bookish way, knowledgeable of such differences, but confesses that his knowledge has never really been tested). The lodge owner loses a bet and acknowledges that Charles might hold valuable knowledge as the result of an honored lost bet between the two men.

After the main characters find themselves lost in the wilderness, they come (well, Charles does) what the lodge owner meant in his warning about bears: “If you see one, stand real still. Let him know that you know that he sees ya. Then, back up reeeal slow. Anybody in trouble, get my attention. I’ll be on it like a duck on a June bug.”

We do not know how valuable this advice is until the main characters are confronted by the Bear after the plane crash. Charles is the only character who responds according to the lodge owner’s advice. He stands still and makes sure the Bear knows he (Charles) sees him.

Why? Because the humans are no longer in “human” (city) world; they are in “Bear World.”

In short, the lodge owner taught them how to respond to a bear as a bear. No bear wants to fight another bear. When a beta bear meets an alpha, he does what the lodge owner describes. He stands still. He makes sure the alpha knows the beta knows that the alpha sees him.

Then, he backs up, reeeal slow.

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Of course, on the day the beta thinks he can become the alpha, he will behave differently. But, until that day, the beta will behave as the beta. John Styles’ advise to the city folks in this situation is to assume they are beta.

Why? Because all of the characters in the film are in bear country; they are not in “man” country. Period. Charles is the only character who seems to appreciate this—but not totally. For much of the film, he thinks “escaping” their situation is the way to survival; but confronting it in every way is the way to survival.

Perhaps needless to say, the film leads us to a moment of this realization. And it’s quite satisfying, even as it traffics in the tragedy of bad decisions and selfishness. Charles finally learns his lesson (which is what the film is really about)—but so does Bob Green. And that is a satisfaction quite un-looked for.

In the end (and from the beginning) “The Edge” (which was originally called by Mamet, “The Bookworm,” which I would have gone to the theater to see but perhaps no one else would have), bravely offers a story that introduces three themes: man v. himself; man v. man; and man v. nature.

The film ingeniously resolves those themes in the opposite order—as if to say, “You cannot fix your broken relationship with yourself without first fixing your relationship with your fellow man which, as it turns out, you cannot fix without figuring out why your relationship with Nature (God, obviously) is so messed up.

Confront the sacred Bear; Confront the sacred Man; Confront the sacred Self.

Well worth your time—both in terms of a conventional adventure film, an “anti” buddy film, and a philosophic mining of human existence film whose double dialog will keep you guessing the entire time.

No spoiler here—but the question for the protagonist is whether he will learn the lessons offered to him by his experience. Teaser: Bob Green (Alec Baldwin’s character) definitely learns those lessons first.

Spoilers ahead (now):

Mamet originally ended the film by having Charles Morse refuse to be saved. The rescue helicopter appears, Bob dies, and Charles walks into the woods, alone, never to be seen again.

So glad the film ends the way it does.

In a seminal moment early in the film, Charles says, “I read something interesting in a book one time. Do you know why people die in the woods? They die of shame. …They ask themselves this question: What did I do wrong that I don’t know what to do now? And they sit down…they give up…and they die.”

If Charles Morse had exited as Mamet had him in the script, to live out his life in the wilderness and he’d lived to old age and then died, alone but on his own terms, what would he have died of?

Shame.

Gregory Borse teaches film appreciation, history & development, philosophy, literary theory and a variety of literatures on a small campus in a large university system in the South. His short story “Joyellen” was selected as an online exclusive for West Trade Review’s Summer 2021 issue. He has published or presented in the past on Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Stephen Frear’s “The Grifters” and seminal horror films ranging from “Nosferatu” to “Halloween,” “The Silence of the Lambs” and “The Strangers,” among others.