Man Against Nature
Mamet's The Edge puts a new twist on rough-hewed themes.
By Mary Dickson
OCTOBER 13, 1997: Playwright David Mamet, known for his biting urban dramas, tackles the wilds of Alaska in the new feature film he penned starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin as two men battling the elements and their own demons after their small plane crashes in the hostile wilderness.
Under the clear-sighted direction of Lee Tamahori (Once We Were Warriors), The Edge is as much psychological drama as action adventure. What sounds at first glance like a laughable plot is actually a satisfying work with fine performances, a compelling script, and intelligent direction, not to mention the added bonus of Alaska's scenic grandeur.
Hopkins has the film's most intriguing role as pensive billionaire Charles Morse who has accompanied his trophy wife, a supermodel played by supermodel Elle MacPherson, on an Alaskan photo shoot. Alec Baldwin plays Bob, the photographer, a cocksure urbanite in search of the perfect shot. Charles, the quiet billionaire who reads everything and is "a font of information," sees the sparks between his wife and Bob.
Apart from flirting with Bob and displaying a genuine fondness toward her husband, Mamet's model/wife is required to do little more than pose, which is to be expected given that writing women's roles has never been one of the playwright's strong suits. He's strictly a man's writer.
The beautiful model may almost convince her husband that she married him because he's the "salt of the earth" and an "angel who has everything but the wings," but Charles is no fool. He knows why a beautiful young woman marries an old billionaire. In fact, he knows why most people are kind to him. When Bob tells Charles, "I feel sorry for you, never knowing who your friends are or what they like you for," his words strike the intended blow. Charles really doesn't know whom his friends are nor whom he can trust. No wonder he's a sad fellow he's a prisoner of his own wealth, which makes him an exceptionally lonely and suspicious man.
Hopkins gives us a billionaire who is introspective, refined, cultured and a genuine humanitarian. With his quiet intelligence and good nature, he's far from the stereotypical egomaniacal corporate magnate, though Bob can't resist voicing resentment. Charles is a rich man, and it just wouldn't be American not to think less of the moneyed.
Bob delights in baiting his older rival. Baldwin is so good at playing smarmy characters with a hint of malevolence that he seems typecast. But his character's venomous sarcasm belies Baldwin's substantive performance.
The tension between the two men is established early on. In his cashmere overcoat, Charles is no outdoorsman. Alaska makes him skittish. He's uneasy on this trip for several reasons. He pours over the pages of Lost in the Wilds, an illustrated book he brought along. When, as part of a surprise party, Bob jumps out wearing a bear skin, a clearly rattled Charles does his best to take the most unkind jest in stride, but we see he's wary of the jokester.
While Mamet fills his screenplay with obvious foreshadowing, it is a quiz Charles musters in an opening scene that sets the course the film will take. The grizzled owner of the lodge takes an oar with a painting of a panther on one side and offers Charles $5 if he can tell him what it means. Charles knows: It's an Innuit symbol. And what, asks the owner, is on the other side? Without hesitating, Charles answers that it is a rabbit smoking a pipe also an Innuit symbol. The rabbit is unafraid, Charles adds, because he knows he is smarter than the panther.
In the events that follow, Charles, like the rabbit, is also unafraid, because he is smarter. While accompanying Bob and his assistant (Romeo and Juliet's Harold Perrineau) on a side trip, their small seaplane runs into a flock of birds and plunges into a mountain lake, setting the adventure drama into motion.
Amazingly, Charles, Bob and his assistant survive. Their mettle is tested from the time of impact: Bob saves himself. Charles saves the assistant. And it is Charles who keeps his calm, and calls on his vast reserves of trivia to save them. As much as they resent him, the other men heed Charles' advice at every turn, coming not only to rely on him but to see him as a decent man.
He's also a paranoid man. "How were you planning to kill me?" he asks Bob. For most of the film, we're not sure if Charles' suspicions are warranted or if he is merely letting jealousy and paranoia get the better of him. Mamet cleverly makes part of the suspense wondering whether Bob is indeed after Charles' wife and money, and if he is really willing to kill to get them. Whatever Bob's motives may have been, the crash puts him in the precarious position of having to rely on a man he clearly hates to lead him out of the wilderness. As the men work together to survive, they are forced to forge an uneasy bond.
Mamet knows how to write the psychological tension underscoring the men's relationship. But he also understands the rules of Hollywood. The main characters in this case Baldwin and Hopkins can come close to dying of exposure to the elements or attacks by wild beasts. They can be severely injured. But, they're the stars. They heal fast, they make miraculous recoveries, and they don't die until the resolution. It is, however, acceptable, for a minor actor in this case Perrineau to die early on. The only unknown is just how he'll go. Once he does, of course, it's just Hopkins and Baldwin out there in the wilderness. Does nature pose the greatest threat? Or are human fear and treachery the bigger dangers?
The finely-honed performances by Hopkins and Baldwin drive Mamet's intriguing tale of physical and emotional survival. Bart the Bear, by the way, deserves a credit as large as the two leads. The 1,400-pound bear, who becomes the film's primary antagonist, is so convincing as a dangerous carnivore that he ratchets up the tension and steals more than a few scenes. With his edgy film, Mamet puts a refreshing spin on the man-against-nature, man-against-man themes: intelligence, not brute strength, prevails. The fittest, after all, aren't always the strongest.
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