Most people lost in the wild die of shame. They didn't do the one thing that could save their lives-- thinking.
When "The Edge" made its rounds at the local multiplex in the fall of 1997, I passed on it for a number of reasons. First of all, sitting through an 'outdoor adventure yarn' about two men fighting a bear lacked the appeal of the flashier competitive offerings out at the time, especially during a time of the year when the days grew increasingly shorter and colder. Furthermore, my previous experience with films of the man-against-nature genre were disappointing ("The Ghost and the Darkness" and "Congo" come to mind), which made the decision that much easier. Of course, "The Edge" has now been on video for awhile, and with it being a slow movie week, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
"The Edge" is a story of two men struggling to survive in the wilderness after their plane crashes. Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins of "Amistad"), a billionaire bookworm, and Bob Green (Alec Baldwin of "Heaven's Prisoners"), a fashion photographer and associate of Charles, are the two men. The trip begins uneventfully enough at a small northern resort where Bob is photographing a spread featuring Mickey Morse (Elle Macpherson), Charles' supermodel wife. However, within the first few minutes of the first act, it is apparent that Charles is a jealous man, and has suspicions of a surreptitious affair between Mickey and Bob. When another fashion model fails to show up for the shoot, Bob and his assistant Stephen (Harold Parrineau of "Romeo and Juliet") hop on a plane to find a photogenic replacement, rumored to be in a cabin further in the bushes. Charles goes along for the ride, which turns out to be a longer trip than expected when the plane crashes in the middle of nowhere. Armed with only a knife, a pocket watch, and what Charles has gleaned from perusing a wilderness survival tome, the three men attempt to walk their way out of the woods and back into civilization. No only must they must brave the inhospitable cold climate and a lack of food, but they must also face the constant attacks of an almost unstoppable bear (Bart the Bear from "The Bear") that is shadowing their every move. Meanwhile, Charles becomes increasingly convinced that Bob deliberately lured him into the wilderness for the purposes of 'doing him in'.
Critically-acclaimed screenwriter David Mamet ("Glengarry Glen Ross") and director Lee Tamahori ("Once Were Warriors") have constructed a surprisingly literate and thoughtful action film, rising above the usual mindless formulaic drivel that dominates the genre. Mamet's gift for loaded dialogue is readily-apparent here-- almost every line uttered by Charles and Bob serves a multitude of purposes. In most films of the action ilk, the majority of the dialogue is geared towards a single purpose, that is, to advance the plot ("The Peacemaker" is a splendid example of the 'action exposition' paradigm). However, in "The Edge", the exchanges between the two protagonists not only advance the plot, but they also reveal the contrast between Charles and Bob, speak to the themes of the film, and are loaded with subtext and innuendo. There are very few films that you can view a second time and notice the subtleties in dialogue and facial expressions when seen in the context of how the story develops.
I seem to be able to retain all these facts, but putting them to any useful purpose is a different matter.
Two examples in particular come to mind upon viewing the film a second time. First, the emotional convergence of the story is not the battle for survival in the wilderness (though it does figure importantly into the themes being explored, and serves as a means for character growth), but the maturation of Hopkins' character. Charles Morse is a man who finds the courage to transcend the petty fixations of the human condition and to have his actions guided by a higher cause-- achieving a level of moral existence. In fact, angels are a recurring motif throughout the film, indicative of Charles 'earning his wings'-- the bookend shots of a winged Native American god atop a totem pole, the fixation on wings and aircraft, and even Mickey's comments to her husband about him 'looking like an angel', and going on the short trip to 'get some wind under his wings'. Despite everything that happens to him in the wilderness and his gnawing suspicions of Bob, Charles does not react with his primal instincts (though he is given plenty of opportunity to do so). Instead, Charles acts deliberately with compassion and finds the strength for forgiveness in resolving his conflict (now contrast this to the prototypical testosterone-charge thriller which would wrap up conflict with a snappy one-liner and a gruesome death, usually by impalement).
Hey, is that a new watch?
Yeah... dual time zone, tells the time in two places.
So if I'm L.A. and I want to know the time in New York, I don't have to go through the anguish of adding three.
Another aspect that becomes apparent upon second viewing is how the film develops a thesis pitting action against inaction, expressed via the juxtaposed characterizations of Charles and Bob. Charles, despite being a billionaire and having his nose buried in a book in the first act (interestingly enough, one of the working titles of this film was "The Bookworm"), is a man of action. After the crash, using his accumulated knowledge of surviving in the wilds, becomes the leader and directs the actions of his fellow survivors-- he is fixated on survival and nothing will deter him. Paradoxically, Charles is also 'saved' by his only occasion of inaction, with respect to his feelings towards Bob, as he spends most of the film mulling over what to do about him. On the other hand, Bob's constant inaction serves to undermine the group's survival efforts, which not only worsens the situation (he neglects burying some blood-soaked bandages, which attracts the bear to their camp), but also prevents him from achieving the growth attained by his counterpart. And like his counterpart, Bob's only occasion of action has unexpected results-- an impulsive act guided by an imperfect motivation results in Bob's ultimate failure.
What are we going to do Charles? What are we going to do?
We're going to kill the bear.
What do we use for bait?
We lure him in. You know, Masai boys in Africa, eleven years old-- they kill lions with spears.
Uh huh... how do we lure him?
And what one can do, another can do.
You can't kill the bear, Charles! He's... he's... he's... been ahead of us the whole time! He's playing with us, he can read out minds. He...
What one can do, another can do! You coward! Do you want to die out here? Do you?! Do you hear me?! I'm going to kill the bear... say it!
Say it! I'm going to kill the bear. Say it!
I'm going to kill the bear.
I'm going to kill the bear!
What one can do, another can do!
What one can do, another can do!
This dichotomy between action and inaction is probably best expressed in this exchange between Charles, who is confident in their abilities to survive for a prolonged period in the woods, and Bob, who feels defeated after a missed rescue opportunity (a rescue chopper flies over their location but does not see them):
Did you know you can make fire from ice? You can make fire from ice. Hello? I'm talking to you... do you know how that would be done? Robert? Robert. Can you think?
You moneyed folks. Isn't it...? Isn't it?
Fire from ice, can you think how?
Sit up there, drinks and golf. Screwing the maid. But get you in an emergency... and you bloom! You make me sick! You make me sick, do you know that!?
I'm sure I do.
You fucking make me sick! What they hell puts you off?! Jews and taxes!
Fire from ice. Can you think how? Can you think how?
I don't want to know how, Charles!
Do you have anything you'd like to live for?
You know something? You know something? Maybe we were right to let people like you running the country all these years, because you were the only ones dense enough!
No I'm not dense... I just don't have an imagination.
Making your decision tree? Is that it?
That's it, Bob.
We can't think they'd come back?
We shouldn't think they'll come back. They've scouted this area and they'll move on.
Charles relies on his own instincts and abilities to effect change in their situation. Bob, on the other hand, prefers an externally-created solution to their predicament, one in which he will be required to provide little or no effort in bringing about (much akin to 'praying for salvation'). This theme of action vs. inaction carries on throughout the film, right up to the climax, where the merits of using of an internally-created solution vs. relying on an externally-generated solution are played out in a tense scene between Charles and Bob.
...I never knew anyone who did actually change their life. I'll tell you what... I'm going to start my life over!
Yeah... you'll be the first.
Aside from the expansive wilderness set pieces and some truly thrilling action sequences, "The Edge" was a surprisingly well-written film, resonating with depth and abound with metaphysical exposition. If you passed on this thinking man's action film when it was in theaters last year, take advantage of its availability on video-- it's worth watching twice.
How did they die?
Those men died... saving my life.