Tony Woodlief | Author

The verisimilar edge

Listening to a local film critic’s tired dismissal of the new film, Edge of Darkness, I was struck by the need, in film, literary, and art criticism just as much as in theological or architectural or epicurean criticism, for a foundational sense of what makes something good. All else flows from that. For some critics, this implicit definition will carry bits of rubbish: It can’t have swear words, for example, or, It shouldn’t feature that Jew-hating Mel Gibson.

A piece of rubbish that seems to jut from this local critic’s first principles — and one carried about by too many critics, for that matter — is the notion that for a film to be good, it shouldn’t contain familiar plot elements. You pick up on that foundational notion in complaints like, in this case: “Edge of Darkness is the same old revenge melodrama about the lone man with a personal grudge going after the people who have done him harm. . .”

When exactly did the revenge drama (there’s very little in Gibson’s dead-eyed performance to warrant the label “melodrama”) come to merit abandonment? When Odysseus covered the walls with the blood of his wife’s suitors? When Hamlet satisfied his mad bloodlust? When Johnny and Henry took Lonnegan’s money?

There’s nothing wrong, in other words, with hewing to a traditional plot. Revenge, unrequited love, a quest, killing a monster, rags-to-riches — we’ll watch them over and over again, if they are good.

So what makes them good? You could start with Aristotle and work your way through to John Gardner and still have trouble answering that question. One element necessary for good drama, I’ll submit, is verisimilitude. I don’t mean that every element of the film must be true to life. This, paradoxically, is very likely to make for a very bad film. If we want complete fidelity to life, we’ll save ourselves nine bucks and wash the dishes. We want adventure and peril and romance and despair and salvation, and we’re willing to believe, for two hours, in aliens or magic swords or unstoppable Everyman heroes who never need to use the restroom in order to get these things.

But in drama, we must have verisimilitude in the small things. What makes us quake for the otherwise loathsome Woody Harrelson in his final harrowing scene in No Country for Old Men? The single tear that escapes from his eye while he tries to look brave. What makes us want to hug the otherwise creepy Donald Sutherland when he finally evicts his detestable wife in Ordinary People? His recounting of a small detail about her criticism of his clothes on the day of their son’s funeral. And in a bit of a twist on this theme, why do some of us feel grief, when Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash explains why he stopped talking about his dead brother in Walk the Line? Because we know full well that Phoenix knows what it means to lose a brother.

Edge of Darkness won me over, then, in the early scenes. I won’t recount the plot here, except to say that Gibson plays a police officer whose daughter is gunned down beside him. Over the course of the movie he gradually uncovers the people who are responsible, and wreaks vengeance. It’s a passable plot, based on a BBC mini-series. It shouldn’t win an Oscar, but neither should most enjoyable films.

Back to verisimilitude. Gibson stands in his bathroom after his daughter’s body has been carted away, after the dozens of police have come and gone. His face and neck are spotted with her blood. He wipes his face with a washcloth, and then, pausing, he tucks the washcloth into a cup to save it. He washes the blood from his hands, and the camera is now directly above the sink, so that we see the water and blood swirling down the drain. This is his daughter, disappearing.

It’s hard to find a nice touch like that any more. There are several in this film. The father clutching his just-murdered daughter, trying to speak, then trying to pray, and none of it coming out right. His transition from rage to sorrow in a single scene, as when he holds a gun to the throat of someone he suspects. The way he talks to his dead child without it becoming overly sentimental. Running through it all is a Big Powers conspiracy, meanwhile, that is refreshingly told insofar as the bad guys are neither all-powerful nor incompetent. They are realists, seeking not tidy ends but enough space to obfuscate and sufficiently evade full detection. Things unravel for them, which I imagine is what frequently happens when Big Government works with Big Industry.

There are many things to admire, in other words, in this film. Some critics complain that it becomes too formulaic and violent at the end, but sometimes the bad guys just need killing, and the writers can be forgiven for making it happen on occasion. And I, for one, am happy to see Mr. Gibson back on the screen. I kinda missed him.

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