Monday, September 26, 2011

Taking A Leap Of Faith

Some movies are never meant to go very far or make much of a splash, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t make you think about their message long after you leave the theatre. I have a soft spot for films that can do that in spite of any lack of critical support.

I must admit I felt some trepidation about seeing The Ledge because I didn’t want it to be a movie that I regretted seeing and sharing with friends. I’ve chosen a few of those gems in the past year (“Skyline” comes to mind and, boy, was that a stinker.) When it happens, all you can hope is that it’s so horrible that you will giggle time and again when someone reminds you of your awful pick.

“The Ledge” did seem like a gamble and, in fact, I suspect a few friends didn’t go because they anticipated it would be as bad as the reviews seemed to imply. “If it had been a great movie, wouldn’t it have been given a lot more coverage?” queried a close friend. That’s a logical assumption to make. But in my case, at least, the gamble paid off and it’s worth explaining why.

On the way to the theater, I read a very hopeful review by atheist blogger, Greta Christina, and she laid out a reasonable and decent summary that made me aware of the expected faults and how the story still offered something for non-believers and believers alike. Christina felt this would open a door for discussion of the myths that society has about atheism in general and might lead to our own cultural acceptance, much like what has happened over the years in films dealing with the LGBT movement. It’s a start no less.

What intrigued me most is how scathingly dismissive many of the reviews have been. It’s almost as if the film we saw, and really liked for the most part, is not the same one seen by the majority of reviewers. My honest experience was this movie is not nearly as dreadful as we’ve been led to believe. Yes, there were moments of clunky dialogue. Yes, there were some contrived plot points. But many movies with what I would consider to be heftier amounts of clumsiness and contrivance have gotten less withering reviews than “The Ledge.”

What resonated for me was that everything about this film felt authentic in many small ways and that was fascinating when so much of the reviews frothed at the mouth about how overly “dramatic” or overly “stale” the production was (on and on and on the negativity flowed.) I even found the sex scenes to be quite compelling, which at my age is quite an achievement for any Hollywood movie. The audience does have to accept a few clichéd storylines in order to let the story flow, but then movies in general have that in common, even good ones sometimes.

First, the actors were sincere in their performances, and I was prepared to do a lot of eye rolling. I’m not even a lukewarm fan of any of the actors in fact, but I have seen most of them in excellent films, so I assumed they would be more than sufficient for a small film like this.

The protagonist, Gavin, portrayed by Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”), could pass for a younger, blonder-locked brother of Heath Ledger. He provided some of the most laughable dialogue early on, but he redeemed the character by the end, thankfully. His good looks and long hair may also not be as believable as a mid-level manager of a hotel (in Baton Rouge), but what he lacks in a perfect fit professionally, he more than makes up for as one of us when he’s on the prophetic ledge. And Liv Tyler was at her best as the vulnerable, pale and unsophisticated neighbor wife, Shanna. In fact, I can’t imagine Tyler playing any role other than a female lead who oozes helplessness and compassion. Her voice and demeanor was simply spot on for this kind of woman. Somehow, they tap into her plainness which makes her that much more real. (Is that another miracle?)

Patrick Wilson was the real shocker for me. Wilson has always played the everyman, the good guy, and has been somewhat forgettable only because he is the never the main course, always the supporting friend or lover. And I can understand if the filmmakers are criticized a little for making him slightly one dimensional with the predictable Christian hang ups. However, his Joe hits a major home run in a confrontational scene with Gavin. You can’t help but feel for him deeply and his pain is heartfelt. Several of us commented on how moving his scenes were and we’re all major non-believers. Needless to say, no one was phoning it in and it shows.

The central idea I took from this film was that atheism wasn’t necessary for the story to challenge the audience. In fact, not being religious isn’t necessary to drive home the point in this story. The question our hero must answer is what would you do for another human being? What would you be willing to sacrifice? It is what disturbed me the most and stuck with me well into a sleepless night.

I simply can’t imagine facing that question in the way that Gavin does. And perhaps that may derail it for someone not in the mood for this film. I always do that in a movie like this: solve the problem magically in a different way than the protagonist. Then it would have been much shorter and more mundane, which may be how the reviewers saw it and that’s a real shame. So, it figures that if you don’t allow yourself to be swept up in the story, you may indeed miss the central message.

Do I think there were a few of the reviewers who may have allowed their dislike of the A-word or their religious beliefs to color their potential appreciation of the film? Possibly, because it follows that we can’t expunge our fundamental viewpoints from our personalities (and anyone who tells differently is usually the worst offender). But I don’t think it was a theistic conspiracy either. Perhaps, atheists simply find the questions in this film more gripping than a typical movie reviewer, so we had a totally different frame of reference than judging the merits alone.

Do I think some of the reviews were overly harsh? Most definitely, which is why I pushed myself to compose these thoughts so you just might give it a chance.

In the end, sometimes you have to go out on a ledge and trust yourself.

"The Ledge" was directed by Matthew Chapman, the great, great grandson of Charles Darwin. It was filmed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and released in the summer of 2011.

You can see The Ledge right now through Video on Demand (your cable service), through the iTunes Store, or on the Internet at Sundance Now

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